Woman died about 65 years ago: cancer cells are still active

Henrietta Lacks died of cancer about 65 years ago. For science, she agreed to have cancer cells removed even after death. A doctor removed the cells and passed them on to an American laboratory. The cancer cells removed at that time are still used for science today. The sensation: Even today, the cancer cells continue to divide.

Tissue samples taken 65 years ago
In early 1951, the young American Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore with a sharp stomachache. The African American was dead only eight months later. She died of cervical cancer. As the news agency dpa reports, her treating doctor, Howard Jones, will write later: “This tumor was different from all others. It was the size of a coin, very purple and soft, but tumors like this are usually hard. ”The doctor removed cells from his patient on February 8, 65 years ago, and passed them on to colleague George Otto Gey.

Cells continue to grow to this day
Gey, who was working at Johns Hopkins Hospital at the time, placed the tissue sample in a mixture of chicken plasma, calf embryo extract, and umbilical cord blood and placed it in a refrigerator. The patient's first letters came on the cell container: "HeLa". He is said to be expecting the tissue to die soon, as no one has yet been able to keep human cells alive in the laboratory for more than a few weeks. But the cells continue to grow to this day. Soon there will be millions: the first human cells that have ever multiplied in a laboratory and survived for more than a few days.

The family of the dead was not informed
Elisabeth Schwarz, biologist at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg, said in the dpa report: "In the history of research, it occupies a leading position, it was a scientific sensation." From then on, for the first time in the history of the Medicine - to be extensively researched on human cells. However, the handling of HeLa cells was extremely problematic for Ms. Lacks' family. Her husband David fought for the rights to his wife's remains until his death in 2002. While the poor woman's cell made many billions of dollars, her relatives didn't know about it for a long time and didn't get any compensation or anything like that for a long time. In 2013, the family finally agreed with the American Institute for Health (NIH).

Standard in every laboratory
Gey had shipped HeLa cells to laboratories around the world. Since then, scientists have mixed their new research object with the cells of mice and chickens and used it to analyze the effects of cancer, polio and AIDS. HeLa is now also being researched in molecular and cell biology. The cells have become the standard in every laboratory - to this day. As Schwarz explained, there are now hundreds of other cell lines. The very first is still in demand. “HeLa cells grow without any problems and they are very robust. A cell divides in 24 hours, with other cell lines it takes much longer. ”However, researchers still cannot say why these cells grow so robustly.

Tumor was the basis for the vaccine
It has been estimated that approximately 50 tons of HeLa cells have been grown to date, around 11,000 patents have been registered worldwide that involve such cells, and more than 74,000 medical studies around the world may have benefited from HeLa cells. Of course also in Germany: Here the longtime chairman of the DKFZ, Harald zur Hausen, made his most spectacular discovery on HeLa cells. The scientist found the papillomaviruses HPV16 and 18 in it, and wondered whether the genetic material of the viruses played a role in the development of the tumor. It finally turned out that the viruses can be the cause of a tumor. As a result, a vaccine was developed and zur Hausen received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2008. The cells of Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer decades ago, were the basis for a vaccine against this type of cancer. (sb, ad)

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