Quirks & Quarks

HeLa cells could have undermined research to the tune of billions of dollars

The HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey, 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,' looks at the legacy of one woman's cancer cells which have spread in both positive and negative ways.
Oprah Winfrey stars in the film about Hentrietta Lacks' unusual cancer cells. (HBO)

The new HBO movie, "The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks" starring Oprah Winfrey, is a true story that begins in 1951. That's when a woman named Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins University to be treated for cervical cancer. At that time, scientists had been trying to grow human cells outside of the body for decades. It never worked until they sampled Henrietta Lacks's tumour. They found her cells could reproduce indefinitely. That allowed scientists, for the first time, to experiment on human cells in the lab. 

Lacks died before finding out about her contribution to science. She would never know the range of biomedical breakthroughs that came as a result of her immortal cell line, from advances in AIDS and Parkinson's research to developing vaccines for polio and HPV.

For the longest time, the world never knew her name. Even her family hadn't been told that her cells lived on. Nor had Lacks given consent for those cells to be used.

In 1951, a doctor in Baltimore removed cancerous cells from Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge or consent. Those cells eventually helped lead to a multitude of medical treatments and formed the groundwork for the multibillion-dollar biotech industry. (Lacks Family/The Henrietta Lacks Foundation/The Associated Press)

Now, years later, there is another troubling aspect to Henrietta Lacks' biomedical legacy – one that could potentially cost science billions of dollars. Her cells, known as HeLa cells, grow so well they've contaminated many of the world's other cell lines used for scientific research.

Dr. Christopher Korch from the University of Colorado Denver in Aurora says this could potentially invalidate thousands and thousands of scientific studies. "We don't know if the research is correct, or is it inapplicable to other types of cells, or whether it is totally bogus. And you have to do the research again to find that out." 

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