The Human Cells We Use For Research Are Kind Of A Genetic Disaster

It turns out that the human cells scientists have studied the most and used in research for more than 60 years have some unexpected and pretty intense genetic mutations. Good thing they weren't used as part of 60,000 published papers. They were? Oh geez.

The cells, known as HeLa cells (pictured above), come from a cervical tumour removed from a patient, Henrietta Lacks, without her knowledge at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. They have been used in the study of everything from the polio vaccine to cancer treatments, and over 50 million metric tons of the cells exist today. The story of HeLa cells gained prominence after journalist Rebecca Skloot published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in 2011, which examines the situation surrounding their removal and use. And now German geneticists are raising questions about the genetic integrity of the cells.

Recent genomic sequencing on the popular "Kyoto" HeLa line reveals known errors common to cancer cells like extra copies of certain chromosomes, but also shows unexpected mutations like strong expression of certain genes and segment reshuffling on many chromosomes. Scientists are interested in tracing different HeLa cell lines to track how they have mutated, and they also want to sequence the genome of the original tumour cells to see which mutations were part of the original cancer. The findings do definitely raise concerns about the relevance of HeLa cells as a "human" model, though. Maybe HeLa should get a rest after 60+ years. [Nature]

Image credit: Shutterstock/T.W.


    Primary cells are where its at. Just need to add a few dozen extra thousand $ to our grant applications each time to pay for commercial ones, or else get the ethics set up and do your own and your lab mates'. And then deal with the issues around batch to batch variation, previous or current infections (can often be asymptomatic infections in adults so you wouldn't know unless you screen extensively for viruses) affecting the cells function and the results...arrggh!

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