Did you know that it is possible for human cells to be removed 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 infinitely when supplied with nutrients.These immortal cells are incredibly important in medical research, as they allow researchers to study and experiment on cells humanely; that is outside the body.
But where do these cells originate from? I mentioned that many cells in culture are originally taken from human tumours, from biopsies or from a surgically removed tumour. Nowadays ethical permission is received from the patient to study the tumour; however medical permission forms didn’t always exist and neither did cell culture, so where did the practice of growing cells come from?
The first cells ever to be immortalised in culture were from a biopsy of a cervical mass (a tumour) from an African American woman called Henrietta Lacks from Baltimore in 1951. They were called HeLa cells and their immortalisation in culture changed the face of medical research. HeLa cells were exposed to all forms of bacteria and viruses to study the method of infection, replication etc. in order to block these processes with antibiotics, vaccines etc. Indeed Polio vaccine neutralisation tests were some of the first vaccine trials that used HeLa cells. Today HeLa cells can still be found cultured in every lab and it is estimated that 50 million tons of HeLa cells could have been grown.
I’ve always viewed cell culture from a purely scientific perspective, but since reading ‘The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot I’ve started to look at cell culture from an entirely new perspective. Henrietta Lacks’ family didn’t find out about her immortal cells until 1973; 22 years after HeLa cells were first cultured. Why had no one told the family? Why is it that the Lacks family can’t afford health insurance, when their mother’s cells have driven forward frontiers in understanding disease?
The truth is that Henrietta’s cells were cultured without her knowledge or consent at a time before regulations were set in place 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.
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 has made me wonder how I would feel if cells had been taken from my Grandmother’s colorectal tumours and grown; who knows, she died in 1965 before law ensured patient consent, maybe her cells are out there. It’s a disconcerting thought.
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? Especially handy as the cancer appears to be hereditary. Indeed although the Lacks’ family are indignant at not being informed about the culture of HeLa cells for two decades and the lack of explanation given them, they are marvelled by the medical breakthroughs made possible by the cells cultured from their mother.
The story of Henrietta Lacks may have made me question certain scientific precepts but has certainly opened my eyes to better appreciate the invention of cell culture and the lives behind the cells. To read more about Rebecca Skloot’s discovery of the world of Henrietta Lacks and cell culture I’d advise you to read ‘The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks’ which is available for loan from the University of Bristol Medical Library.