What Are HeLa Cells?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on January 22, 2022
4 min read

Your body is made of cells -- trillions of them. Cells are the basic building blocks of people and all other living things. Researchers study them to learn more about health and diseases. But most cells die or make limited copies of themselves after they’re removed from the body by a doctor or a scientist.

HeLa cells were the first human cells that researchers could grow and multiply endlessly in the lab. This gave researchers across the world a steady supply of the same cells to test on.

Since being discovered in the 1950s, experiments on HeLa cells have played a role in developing advances like the polio and COVID-19 vaccines, treatments for cancer, HIV, AIDS, and much more. About 55 million tons of these cells have been used in over 75,000 scientific studies around the world.

HeLa cells get their name from the person they belonged to: Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman and mother of five who in 1951 got diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

While Lacks got treatment at the hospital, a doctor there named George Gey collected and studied a biopsy sample of her cancer cells without her knowledge and consent. He did that with samples from other cervical cancer patients at the hospital, too. Today, reputable medical centers (Johns Hopkins included) ask a patient for their full consent before using their cells or other tissues for research.

Henrietta Lacks passed away in October 1951 at 31 years old. But the doctor who studied her cancer cells discovered that they could multiply continuously in the lab -- unlike other patients’ cells, which died quickly. This led scientists to call HeLa cells the first “immortal” line of human cells.

Scientists around the world have used HeLa cells to drive different areas of medicine forward:

Vaccines. In the early 1950s, scientists learned they could grow large amounts of the virus that causes polio disease in HeLa cells. This gave them a better understanding of how the virus infected cells and caused disease. It helped pave the way for the development of the polio vaccine, which became available in the U.S. in 1955.

Decades later, HeLa cells were used in research for the COVID-19 vaccines, though there aren’t many details on the role they played. 

Cancer. In 1985, scientists used HeLa cells to find out that HPV (human papillomavirus), the most common sexually transmitted disease, can cause cervical cancer. The lead researcher behind the work eventually won a Nobel Prize for the discovery, which laid the groundwork for the HPV vaccine to be developed.

HeLa cells have also helped scientists develop cancer treatments. In the mid-1980s, researchers slowed the growth of HeLa cells (which are cancerous) with the drug camptothecin. The finding supported future research that confirmed the drug limits uncontrollable growth in other types of cancer cells. The FDA later approved camptothecin to treat certain types of ovarian, lung, and cervical cancers.

In 2010, researchers used HeLa cells to explain how thalidomide -- a drug once used to treat morning sickness during pregnancy -- caused birth defects. The knowledge of how thalidomide works helped scientists put the drug to use as a treatment for multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells.

HIV and AIDS. In the late 1980s, researchers discovered that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, struggles to infect HeLa cells. This helped them understand how the infection works, and it laid the groundwork for the development of medications for HIV and AIDS.

In vitro fertilization (IVF). This fertility procedure helps couples and individuals conceive by combining a woman’s eggs with a man’s sperm in the lab. Research on HeLa cells paved the way for scientists to create IVF, although details on this are limited.

It turns out that an IVF pioneer named Howard Jones Jr. was also the first doctor to examine Henrietta Lacks when she came to Johns Hopkins Hospital to get examined for symptoms that turned out to be cervical cancer.

Blood disorders. In 1964, scientists used a drug called hydroxyurea on HeLa cells and found it showed promise against certain types of blood cancer and anemia. Today, hydroxyurea is a treatment for sickle cell anemia and cancer of the white blood cells.

Cellular aging. Researchers in the late 1980s used HeLa cells to discover that chromosomes -- bundles of DNA in your cells -- have “caps” that get replenished by a certain enzyme, which prevents cellular breakdown, damage, and decay over time. The finding helped scientists better understand the biology of aging and diseases that lead to premature aging. The researchers later won a Nobel Prize for their work.

Salmonella. This type of bacteria causes over 1 million infections and more than 25,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. per year. In the 1970s, scientists used HeLa cells to how Salmonella infects the body. This eventually helped lead to new methods to diagnose and treat the disease.

X-rays. In 1956, researchers used HeLa cells to find out how radiation from X-rays can harm cells. Among the risks of getting a medical X-ray, there’s a chance that high and repeated doses of radiation could make you more likely to get cancer later in life. But if your doctor says you need one, understand that the benefits usually outweigh the risks for many adults. Health workers are supposed to take extra care to shield pregnant women and children from radiation if they need X-rays.