Immortal Cells

The film starring Oprah Winfrey, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, was released on HBO on Saturday and has prompted me to re-visit this post I wrote shortly after reading the book the film is based on.


Did you know that cells can be taken from the body and survive, even multiply in number?

Growing cells outside the body is known as “cell culture”. Cells grown in culture are often taken from tumours, because tumour cells have the ability to grow (almost) infinitely when provided with a supply of nutrients. These immortal cells are incredibly important in medical research, as it allows researchers to study human cells. For instance, when I was in the lab, I analysed cancer cells to discover how they were able to move and form secondary tumours, and what treatment could be used to stunt that movement.

Nowadays ethical permission is received from the patient to study the tumour from surgical resections or biopsies; however medical permission forms didn’t always exist and neither did cell culture, so where did the practice of growing cells come from?

Cue Henrietta

The first cells ever to be immortalised in culture were from a biopsy taken from a cervical tumour found in a lady called Henrietta Lacks, who lived in Baltimore in 1951. They were named HeLa cells after Henrietta and their immortalisation in culture changed the face of medical research.

HeLa cells were exposed to many forms of bacteria and viruses to study their specific routes of infection, replication etc. in order to block these processes with antibiotics and vaccines. The first ever vaccine trials for polio were performed on HeLa cells.

Today HeLa cells can still be found cultured in virtually every biological lab and it is estimated that 50 million tons of HeLa cells could have been grown since their isolation in 1951. Yet until Rebecca Skloot investigated the cells’ origins, the knowledge of the HeLa name being short for Henrietta Lacks had been lost. It was certainly a revelation for me as a scientist.

I’d always viewed cell culture from a purely scientific perspective, in that cells make very useful tools. But after reading “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot- the book the new film release is based on, I started to look at cell culture from an entirely new perspective.

Without knowledge or consent

Henrietta Lacks’ family didn’t find out about her immortal cells until 1973, 22 years after HeLa cells were first cultured and long after Henrietta’s death. Why had no one told the family? And why is it that the Lacks family can’t afford health insurance, when their mother’s cells have driven forward frontiers in healthcare?

Henrietta’s cells were cultured without her knowledge or consent at a time before regulations were established to safeguard patient’s rights. Regulations now ensure that informed consent must be received and the patient informed of any commercial benefit that can be made from their medical donation.

Skloot did go on in her investigations to address the seeming injustice to the Lacks’ family and set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to help those who have contributed to research and not benefitted, especially those whose consent was not given.

Switch in perspective

I think what particularly struck me on reading “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” is how strange it must have been for Henrietta Lacks’ children to find that cells from their mother were alive! It made me wonder how I would feel if cells had been taken from my Grandmother’s colorectal tumours and grown. Who knows, she also died at a time before the law ensured patient consent, maybe her cells are out there!

On the other hand, how amazing would it be if the cells from the cancer that killed my grandmother were used to cure the disease? Particularly for myself, as the type of cancer has strong hereditary links.

And although the Lacks’ family are indignant at not being informed about the culture of Henrietta Lacks’ cells and the lack of explanation provided, they are marvelled by the medical breakthroughs made possible by the cells cultured from their mother.


The story of Henrietta Lacks made me question certain scientific precepts and opened my eyes to better appreciate the invention of cell culture and the human lives behind the cells. To learn more about the journey of discovery that Rebecca Skloot made, along with Henrietta Lacks’ daughter-Deborah, I’d advise you to read or watch “The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks”.


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