What makes HeLa cells so aggressive

HeLa cellsLate compensation for use of "immortal" cell lines

When the pharmacologist David Kroll was writing his doctoral thesis in the late 1980s, he was working with HeLa cells. Just like thousands of scientists worldwide. But he knew little about where the cells came from.

"All I knew was that the cells came from a nonprofit organization that sold them at cost. I wrote in my doctoral thesis that the cells came from a laboratory one floor below. And that was all. For me, that's one of them biggest weaknesses of my doctoral thesis. "

Because the cells are part of an inglorious chapter of science. They were first presented to the public in 1951, when the scientist George Guy appeared on American television. He holds a vial up to the camera:

"Let me show you a bottle in which we have grown massive quantities of cancer cells ..."

He let cancer cells grow in it. For the first time it has been possible to reproduce human cells in the laboratory. A big breakthrough and Gey is already dreaming of curing cancer forever.

The truth only comes to light by chance

The cell donor no longer experiences the television broadcast. She died of her aggressive cancer a few hours earlier. Henrietta Lacks was only 31 years old. Little did she know that her cells would live on in Gey's lab - no one had found it necessary to ask her permission to take them out. Even their survivors, including their five children, would not find out until many years later that their mother's cells were still alive. Now in laboratories all over the world. There the cells played a crucial role in developing polio vaccinations. They were and are used to test new methods and active substances with human cells - from in-vitro fertilization to cancer research. The family did not find out about this from a researcher or a doctor, as Henrietta Lacks' granddaughter Jeri Lacks-Whye relates:

"The wife of Henrietta's eldest son had dinner with a friend who also had relatives over. When my aunt introduced himself, someone at the table said he knew the name Lacks, that he was working with HeLa cells made by a young woman named Henrietta Lacks. My aunt said she had been dead for more than 20 years. She was shocked. "

The shock is followed by uncertainty and for years the family can hardly understand what exactly is happening in the laboratories with the cells of their mother and grandmother. When family members ask questions, scientists keep disrespecting them. That only changes when journalists investigate the history of the HeLa cells - especially the journalist Rebecca Skloot. She wrote articles and eventually a bestseller about Henrietta Lacks and her cells.

A foundation honors the donor's memory

Through this work, David Kroll also learns more about the cells with which he works. He contacts the journalist. He realizes that he owes his doctorate to the involuntary donation from Henrietta Lacks. Today he estimates that more than 100,000 scientific papers have emerged from working with HeLa cells. To date, commercial cell lines based on HeLa have been developed.

David Kroll is now a member of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation's board of directors. The foundation was founded by the book author Rebecca Skloot. It supports the offspring of people who have taken part in scientific studies without their consent. Around 100 scholarships have already been awarded. So far, the money has come from individual donors: people who work with the cells, but also school children who heard the story and then collected money. This year, however, the foundation received five- and six-figure sums for the first time.

Research also contributes funds

"The timing is interesting. I don't know if it has to do with the Black Lives Matter movement or the film that was made about Henrietta Lacks. In the first eight years of the foundation, we didn't have any major research institutes or educational institution and no business get paid. "

Abcam is the first biotech company from Great Britain to make a major donation, and the American Howard Hughes Medical Institute is the first research institution. David Kroll hopes these examples will catch on and see them as part of a trend in science to recognize subjects and donors. He is proud that the foundation enables some families to have a better life - especially the descendants of Henrietta Lacks.

"Several of Henrietta Lacks' grandchildren are aiming for a degree in a health care profession. For me, helping at least this generation to advance in society is a step towards more justice."