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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

HeLa Cancer Cell Line Sequenced – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Takes a New Path

We are in the midst of profound change, and at the front edge of immense change in dealing with cancer.

To see at least part of the change, consider the HeLa cell line. HeLa is the name for the first immortal cell line of human cells. That is, the first cancer cell line maintained alive outside the human body.

The HeLa cell line emerged from Henrietta Lacks. Ms. Lacks was a black woman who died an awful cancer death in the very early 1950s in a then-segregated hospital ward at the now open Johns Hopkins Hospital. Ms. Lacks’ doctors took samples of the tumor. They would not die. They became the immortal HeLa cell line. Trillions of the cells live on today.

Ms. Rebecca Skloot told Ms. Lacks’ story in a powerful book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. For more on the story of Ms. Lacks and her family, see the related web site. The story raises powerful questions and issues regarding whether, when and how money should be generated and/or divided from genetic material of patients.

Fast forward to 2013. A March 14, 2013 "early online" paper reports that researchers in Germany have now sequenced the HeLa cancer cell line. They found "catastrophic chromosome shattering, known as chromothripsis." See below for the full abstract and more on Ms. Lacks. Go here for more on "chromothripsis."

As described by Ms. Skloot, the doctors treating Ms. Lacks had absolutely no idea where the cancer came from, and nothing useful to do but try to relieve pain. In stark contrast, today we can literally see at least part of why the cancer happened. That’s profound change. Imagine what’s ahead.



HeLa is the most widely used model cell line for studying human cellular and molecular biology. To date, no genomic reference for this cell line has been released, and experiments have relied on the human reference genome. Effective design and interpretation of molecular genetic studies done using HeLa cells requires accurate genomic information. Here we present a detailed genomic and transcriptomic characterization of a HeLa cell line. We performed DNA and RNA sequencing of a HeLa Kyoto cell line and analyzed its mutational portfolio and gene expression profile. Segmentation of the genome according to copy number revealed a remarkably high level of aneuploidy and numerous large structural variants at unprecedented resolution. The extensive genomic rearrangements are indicative of catastrophic chromosome shattering, known as chromothripsis. Our analysis of the HeLa gene expression profile revealedthat several pathways, including cell cycle and DNA repair, exhibit significantly different expression patterns from those in normal human tissues. Our results provide the first detailed account of genomic variants in the HeLa genome, yielding insight into their impact on gene expression and cellular function as well as their origins. This study underscores the importance of accounting for the strikingly aberrant characteristics of HeLa cells when designing and interpreting experiments, and has implications for the use of HeLa as a model of human biology."

The full paper is online, at no cost.

From the website for the book, the brief version of Ms. Lacks’ journey:


"About The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance.

Soon to be made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, this New York Times bestseller takes readers on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers filled with HeLa cells, from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia, to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. It’s a story inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we’re made of."

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