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HeLa Cells: The Immortals

The cells in our bodies have a definite cell life. Some cells die off quickly and some have a longer period of time. Cells divide to give rise to new cells and eventually, after about fifty divisions, die off. But there are some cells in the world that have been around for more than seventy years thriving outside a body multiplying and multiplying making an immortal cell line. These are called HeLa cells.

What are HeLa cells?

HeLa cells were cells derived from Henrietta Lacks, a patient admitted to the Johns Hopkins Institute. She ultimately died from cervical cancer in 1951. The doctor took the sample of her tumor and sent it to a laboratory within the institute to a researcher, Geroge Gey. He saw the potential in these cells and noted that these cells would continue to divide over and over again. Unlike other cell lines the scientists had tried to develop, these cells would not die off after a certain time. The property of these cells dividing in an unlimited fashion made them a peculiar research material. HeLa cells were then transferred to laboratories all over the world so researchers could benefit from these cells.

What makes HeLa cells immortal?

HeLa cells

Various human cell lines have been made now, which are used as test samples for various research reasons. The HeLa cell line was the first one of them and is still going strong. These cells underwent genome sequencing so their secret to immortality could be puzzled out. Not much could be learned properly, However, the researchers found out that Henrietta suffered from cervical cancer caused by HPV (human papillomavirus). It was found that certain parts of the viral genome had integrated into Henrietta's genome and worked specifically on the oncogenes in the genome. Oncogenes are the genes involved in cancer formation.

What were HeLa cells used for?

Researchers around the world used this unlimited supply of cells in the laboratory for testing all sorts of vaccines, and reactions of cells to mutagens, bacteria, viruses, etc. The Polio vaccine is the most famous vaccine tested and formed due to these cells. These cells work as material to test out treatments for diseases and work out the etiology of diseases.

The unethical dilemma of science

Science has always been a double edge for the progression of society. Henrietta Lacks has participated in the poignant discoveries and is responsible for finding the cure for diseases. However, at the time of sample retrieval, she was not aware of what her cells could be used for, and no consent was taken from her family to put her cells to use. In 2023, the family settled the lawsuit with the institute involved.

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