What the scientists say

Craig, Harry and Jon all work with HeLa cells derived from Henrietta Lacks’s original tissue sample. What do they think about Henrietta, HeLa and working with Helen over the last year?

Image: Thomas Deerinck and Mark Ellisman

Craig McArdle studies how cells communicate with each other using signals such as hormones. As Professor of Molecular Pharmacology at Bristol University, he is normally surrounded by scientists. Find out how he felt about working with an artist for a change... 

Why are HeLa cells special? 
Craig says: ‘They were the first human cells we could maintain alive and healthy in culture for a vast number of research applications. You could test for the effects of toxic chemicals on the activity of the cells. Famously, they used it to test the polio vaccine in the early fifties. Today, you might use them to test genetic manipulations. 

‘There are probably thousands of human cell lines now. All of these are possible because of the initial development done with HeLa cells.’ 

fluorescently stained HeLa cells under 300x magnificationFluorescently labelled HeLa cells, magnified 300 times. Image: Thomas Deerinck and Mark Ellisman, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, UCSD. 

How do you feel about Henrietta now? 
Craig says: ‘An important eye-opener for me is being reminded that HeLa cells came from a woman who suffered terribly from her cancer, and from a family who suffered not just from the loss of their mother but from some of the injustices associated with their subsequent treatment.’ 

Harry Mellor studies how different components inside your cells move around. He is Professor of Cell Biology at Bristol University. Find out how this project changed his outlook on HeLa cells... 

Jon Lane is also a cell biologist at Bristol University. He studies how cells break themselves down. As a student, he did not know much about Henrietta Lacks. His students, however, will fare differently. 

Jon says: ‘I can’t remember a time in which I definitely linked the cells to the person. Being involved in this with Helen has made me think about this again. 

‘I think when I’m teaching students in the future, I will make sure I do mention that they have come from somebody, just mention there is a person linked to these cells.’

Why are HeLa cells considered controversial? 
Jon explains... 

So should I be worried about donating a tissue sample for research?  
Harry says: ‘The ethical problems with the HeLa cells stem from the fact that they’ve survived over 50-odd years now and covered this enormous amount of change in the way we view people donating material to science. 

‘I’m sure people will be glad to hear of the enormous amount of paperwork and care that’s involved in taking those samples today. We’re absolutely reliant on samples from patients. We couldn’t do our work without those.’ 

Human Tissue Act 2004 cover pageImage: The National Archives, © Crown copyright