The World’s First Immortal Cell Line: HeLa – Aahana Bhatt 8A

What is it and where did it come from ?

HeLa is an immortal cell line used in scientific research. It is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line. The line is named after and derived from cervical cancer cells taken on February 8, 1951, from Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old African-American who died of cancer in 1951. The cell line was found to be extremely durable and prolific, which allows it to be used extensively in scientific study.

Cell biologist George Otto Gey found that they could be kept alive, and developed a cell line. Previously, cells cultured from other human cells would only survive for a few days. Cells from Lacks’s tumor behaved differently.

As was custom for Gey’s lab assistant, the culture was named after the first two letters of the Henrietta Lacks’ first and last name. Before a leak to the public in the 1970s which revealed her true name, the “HeLa” cell line was mistakenly believed to have been named after a “Helen Lane” or “Helen Larson”.

Why the name immortal?

HeLa cells, are termed “immortal” in that they can divide an unlimited number of times in a laboratory cell culture plate as long as fundamental cell survival conditions are met (i.e. being maintained and sustained in a suitable environment). There are many strains of HeLa cells as they continue to mutate in cell cultures, but all HeLa cells are descended from the same tumor cells removed from Lacks. The total number of HeLa cells that have been propagated in cell culture far exceeds the total number of cells that were in Henrietta Lacks’s body.

What HeLa Cells Are and Why They Are Important

Use in research:
HeLa cells were the first human cells to be successfully cloned in 1953 by Theodore Puck and Philip I. Marcus at the University of Colorado, Denver.
HeLa cells have “continually been used for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits.” According to authors, “more than 60,000 scientific articles had been published about research done on HeLa, and that number was increasing steadily at a rate of more than 300 papers each month.”

  1. Virology- HeLa cells have been used in testing multiple viruses like, parvovirus, oropouche virus (OROV), canine distemper, and many more.
  2. Polio eradication- HeLa cells were used by Jonas Salk to test the first polio vaccine in the 1950s. They were observed to be easily infected by poliomyelitis, causing infected cells to die. This made HeLa cells highly desirable for polio vaccine testing since results could be easily obtained.
  3. Genetics- In 1965, Henry Harris and John Watkins created the first human-animal hybrid by fusing HeLa cells with mouse embryo cells. This enabled advancements in mapping genes to specific chromosomes.
  4. Space microbiology- In the 1960s, HeLa cells were sent on the Soviet satellite Sputnik-6 and human space missions to determine the long term effects of space travel on living cells and tissue. Scientists discovered that HeLa cells divided even more quickly in zero gravity.
HeLa - Wikipedia


The HeLa cell line still lives today and is serving as a tool to uncover crucial information about the coronavirus.

Researchers claim, that HeLa cells are no longer in human at all: they are single-celled microbes–closely related to us, but their own distinct species.

Even in 21st century, where science has proven to be way ahead of thought process of mankind still, there exists some aspects which are immortal and beyond comprehension making a better place for survival for all.