[Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells,] HeLa cells, have enabled scientists around the world to make great leaps in science and medicine. This list highlights five of these remarkable contributions.
1. Polio eradication
Jonas Salk had developed a polio vaccine in the early 1950’s but was struggling to find a way to test it in field trials as traditionally used rhesus monkey cells were too expensive for such a large-scale study. In 1952, HeLa cells were found to be both susceptible to, but not killed by polio, making them an ideal source of host cells.
2. Improved cell culture practices
During the mass production and distribution of HeLa cells for polio vaccine testing at Tuskegee University, lead researchers Brown and Henderson pioneered new cell culture protocols.
3. Chromosome counting
Rebecca Skloot describes in her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, how a lab mix up in Texas in 1953 accidentally enabled researchers to see and count each chromosome clearly in the HeLa cells they were working with.
4. Genome mapping
Harris and Watkins created the first human-animal hybrids in 1965, by fusing HeLa cells with mouse cells.
5. Human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccines
In the 1980’s, Henrietta’s cells were found to contain HPV-18 by Harald zur Hausen, who later went on to win a Nobel Prize for his discovery linking HPV and cervical cancer.
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