How HeLa Cells Work

Saving Lives After Death

Although initially HeLa was developed for use in cancer research, that was just a start. HeLa cells have even been sent to outer space, proving that cancer cells can grow there. Almost since its creation, the HeLa cell line has been used in many different ways, and it even helped found entire fields of study. For example, doctors essentially created the field of virology -- the study of viruses -- after infecting HeLa cells with everything from measles to mumps so they could observe how the viruses affected the cells. This led to the creation of some of the vaccines in use today. Genetic medicine might not be possible without HeLa cells, as researchers discovered that the cells' chromosomes were visible when treated with a specific stain. In the mid-1960s, HeLa cells were fused with mouse embryo cells to create the first cell hybrid, which helped researchers begin the process of mapping the human genome.

The most well-known early use of HeLa involves a disease that has been eradicated in the Western hemisphere. In the early 1950s, the United States was stricken by fear of contracting the infectious, paralytic disease called polio. Outbreaks were on the rise, with about 60,000 cases in 1952, and there was a huge push to come up with a vaccine. That year researcher Jonas Salk created the vaccine, and part of the testing process used HeLa cells. HeLa cells have also been instrumental in studying tuberculosis, HIV and human papillomavirus (or HPV, which eventually resulted in a vaccine). Researchers have used them to test medications for cancer and Parkinson's disease, and they've even been used to test products like cosmetics.

HeLa cells have also been employed to help standardize procedures and tools for culturing and growing cells. When Dr. Gey first started sharing the cells, he had to use couriers to transport them via airplane, and there was a very limited timeframe in which the cells would survive. But soon researchers found a way to keep HeLa -- and other cells -- alive in the mail.

When the story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells began to get recognition, it raised a lot of questions in yet another area -- ethics in biomedical research. Although things have changed drastically since Lacks was a patient, there's still a lot of debate. We'll end with a look at how the Lacks case has played a part.