What are HeLa cells?

The HeLa cells are of enormous importance in research and medicine. It is the first cell line that not only survived in the laboratory, but also multiplied. Even today, research on HeLa cells is still being conducted in laboratories all over the world. They have contributed to the research of countless diseases and a large number of discoveries are based on them.

Learn more about the following topics in the article below:

  • Discovery of HeLa cells
  • Origin of HeLa cells
  • Structure of HeLa cells
  • Definition of cell line
  • Research on HeLa cells
  • Manufacture of HeLa cells
  • Analysis of HeLa cells
  • Controversies about HeLa cells

Test the fluidlab R-300 free of charge and without obligation!

You would like to make your daily laboratory routine even more efficient or carry out analyses independent of location and are interested in innovative technology that aims to do just that? Then test our patented fluidlab R-300 now - without any obligation!


Request test device now

The discovery of HeLa cells

The HeLa cells are named after the woman whose organism they were taken from in 1951. It was the then 30-year-old Henrietta Lacks, who was suffering from stabbing stomach pain when she went to see the doctor, Jones Howard, at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

It soon turned out that she suffered from cervical cancer. Without her knowledge, the doctor on duty in the operating room took a tissue sample from her in the hope of discovering an ever-growing cell line. After only 8 months Henrietta Lacks died of the tumor. However, her cells are still multiplying in the laboratories today.

The tissue sample taken was then placed in a mixture of chicken plasma, an extract of calf embryos and human umbilical cord blood in the laboratory of George Gey and his wife Margaret. The mixture was stored in the refrigerator. The container containing the sample was labelled with the patient's initials - HeLa.

Contrary to expectations, it turned out that the cells did not die even after several weeks in culture, but continued to multiply at an enormous speed. This was a sensation in science, as no one had ever before succeeded in cultivating human cells for more than a few weeks in the laboratory. As a result, George Gey sent the HeLa cells to laboratories all over the world. For the first time it was possible to do extensive research on human cells.1

Where are HeLa cells from?

The cells were taken from Henrietta Lacks tumor tissue in the cervix. It is described that the tumor was the size of a coin. Furthermore, it was purple and soft, which was unusual since this type of tumor was usually very hard.2

What is the structure of HeLa cells?

The HeLa cells are structured like other human cells. They have a cell membrane, cytoplasm, cell organelles and a cell nucleus. However, their genome contains a large number of mutations.3 For this reason, it is not unusual for HeLa cells to have more than one cell nucleus.

What is a cell line?

Cell lines are cells of a tissue type that can reproduce indefinitely in a cell culture. Cell culture is the cultivation and propagation of living cells. This is done under sterile conditions. Usually, a distinction is made between two different cell lines - primary and permanent or immortalized cell lines.

Which cell lines exist?

Primary cell lines or primary cells are part of a tissue, also called explant. The cells are freshly extracted from the tissue of a living organism and cultivated in vitro to form a cell line. Their lifespan is limited.4

Permanent or immortalized cell lines consist of cells with unlimited growth potential. As a rule, these are tumor cells. The cells can multiply indefinitely in vitro. This property can result from a cell transformation, which either occurs spontaneously or is induced. 

Another possibility of immortalization is the infection of the cells with a virus. The best known example of a permanent cell line are the HeLa cells. These are infected with the papilloma virus.5

When do we speak of a potentially immortal cell line?

We speak of a potentially immortal cell line if the cells continue to divide and multiply indefinitely. The continuously growing culture shows a strikingly large number of population doublings. This is usually the case with tumor cells. However, the above mentioned possibilities can also make mortal cell lines immortal.

What research is carried out on HeLa cells?

Cell lines are cells of a tissue type that can reproduce indefinitely in a cell culture. Cell culture is the cultivation and propagation of living cells. This is done under sterile conditions. Usually, a distinction is made between two different cell lines - primary and permanent or immortalized cell lines. 

A lot of research has been and is still being done on HeLa cells. Even though these cells are cancer cells, they possess elementary properties of healthy cells such as the functioning of genes, the production of proteins or the nutrient balance of a cell.

They are used for research in human biology by means of cell and tissue culture as well as for research into human diseases. The cells also play a central role in cancer research. Molecular and cell biology also uses cells as a standard model for research.

The HeLa cells have already been infected with various diseases such as mumps, measles, chickenpox, herpes, tuberculosis or even HIV. They have also been exposed to strong radiation during atomic bomb tests or sent into space to be exposed to weightlessness.7


What significance do HeLa cells have for research?

The science and medicine owes the HeLa cells a great progress and many findings. Approximately 11,000 registered patents all over the world are based on the scientific findings resulting from research on HeLa cells. There are also more than 75,000 scientific articles resulting from experiments with the cells.

It is estimated that over 50 tons of HeLa cells have already been cultivated.8 Henrietta Lacks' cells were used by Jonas Salk, for example, to develop the first polio vaccine used against polio. Furthermore, human papillomaviruses HPV18 were found in the cells by Harald zur Hausen, who himself was chairman of the German Cancer Research Center.

It turned out that these viruses could be the cause of the tumor. As a result, a vaccine against cervical cancer was developed and zur Hausen was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2018.9 The HeLa cells were also used to elucidate the function of telomerase and chromosomal telomeres.10 Thanks to the HeLa cells, which were stained for an experiment, the cause of the disease trisomy 21 could also be determined.11

In short, research and medicine would not be where they are today without HeLa cells.

What advantages do HeLa cells have compared to other cells?

Compared to other cells, HeLa cells have the advantage that they are much more robust. Therefore they do not die so quickly and are easy to cultivate. They continue to multiply even under poor conditions. In contrast to others, they can be cultivated forever. Other cells, however, die after a certain time.

The proliferation and growth of the HeLa cells is also very fast. With approx. 13.5 hours12 the HeLa cells have a very short doubling time. This makes the effects of the test on the cells and their growth visible earlier. This has the advantage that results can also be evaluated more quickly.

Which experiments can be performed with HeLa cells?

HeLa cells are suitable for any experiments that are carried out in cell culture. Various substances can be tested on them. In addition, different cell culture methods can be carried out on them to test which one is most suitable.

But also all other experiments that contribute to the understanding of cell function and cell structure can be performed with HeLa cells. Some examples are the following:

  • Toxicity experiments      
  • Proliferation Experiments      
  • Experiments to test cell adhesion        
  • Migration Experiments     
  • Migration Experiments      
  • Transfections etc.

How are HeLa cells being produced?

The HeLa cells multiply by mitosis. This is a life cycle that the cells go through, which causes them to divide and multiply. The cycle consists of several phases. 

In the interphase, which itself is also divided into three phases, cell organelles, proteins and the cell grows. In addition, the genetic material is doubled and the cell is prepared for division.

In the M-phase the cell divides, new daughter cells are formed, which again enter the interphase. The cycle is repeated until the cells have differentiated.

A special section of the interphase is the G₀ phase. The cells remain in this phase if they lose their division activity or if they do not pass the individual checkpoints of the interphase. This can happen, for example, if they are not the right size.

In order for the cells to multiply well, it is important that the cells are supplied with sufficient nutrients and have sufficient space to grow. Normally, cultivation is performed in a CO2 incubator at high humidity and a constant temperature of 37°C. It is very important to change the medium regularly, otherwise the cells will die.

Cultivation in large quantities is carried out by companies from which the HeLa cells can be ordered. Afterwards they can be further cultivated and multiplied for various experiments in our own laboratory as described.

How can HeLa cells be analyzed?

HeLa cells can be analyzed like other cells. Conclusions can then be drawn from the analysis, for example on viability, growth or other aspects. It always depends on what is analyzed.

The analysis by the fluidlab R-300 can provide a first remedy by providing basic results.

A prepared sample of HeLa cells can be added to the sample carrier of the fluidlab. The cells are then automatically counted using the cell counting function. How exactly a cell count is carried out with the R-300 can be read in our article on this topic.

Afterwards the cell concentration is given. With this information it can be determined whether the HeLa cells have multiplied and if so, how much. The concentration also gives information about the time period in which the cells have multiplied.

In addition to cell counting, the fluidlab R-300 can also provide information on the viability of the HeLa cells. The number of dead and living cells is also recorded and indicated during cell counting. 

This information is helpful to determine the effect of an experiment on the viability of the cells.

Which controversies exist in connection with HeLa cells?

Of course the HeLa cells bring with them some controversy. One of them is that the cells were taken from the patient without her consent. So Henrietta Lacks knew nothing about the cell removal. At that time, this was unfortunately common practice. Furthermore, the Johns Hopkins Hospital was one of the few in the area that treated dark-skinned patients. 

Henrietta Lacks' family also knew nothing about the collection. It was not until 20 years later that her descendants learned that the cells of their relatives were still alive and were also being marketed. Henrietta Lacks' family was poor and remained so. Even though Henrietta Lacks' cells made an enormous contribution to the development of medicine, her family never received any money for them.

It was only after many years that they received public recognition. Today a memorial plaque in honor of Henrietta Lacks stands in a wooded area where her grave is believed to be. Henrietta Lacks was posthumously awarded an honorary doctorate from Morgan State University in Baltimore in 2011.13

In the book published in 2010, entitled "The Immortality of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot, the story of the young Henrietta Lacks is reviewed and told. In 2017 the story of Henrietta Lacks was filmed, directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Oprah Winfrey. The film is entitled "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks".

Would you like to test the fluidlab R-300 free of charge and without obligation?


Request test device now






1 Deutsche-Apotheker-Zeitung, 2016, Als die Zellen unsterblich wurden, Baltimore/Heidelberg, https://www.deutsche-apotheker-zeitung.de/news/artikel/2016/02/05/als-die-zellen-unsterblich-wurden [13.05.20]

2 Trisko A., 2016, HeLa: Diese Krebszellen wachsen seit 65 Jahren, https://www.trendsderzukunft.de/hela-diese-krebszellen-wachsen-seit-65-jahren/ [13.05.20]

3 Gesundheitsindustrie BW, 2013, HeLa, ein menschlicher Bauplan in der Petrischale, Fachbeitrag, https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/fachbeitrag/aktuell/hela-ein-menschlicher-bauplan-in-der-petrischale [13.05.20]

4 Preißler S., 2004, Kultivierung und Charakterisierung von Primärtumorzelllinien aus Aszites und Pleuraergüssen von Patienten mit fortgeschrittenen gastrointestinalen Tumoren, Medizinische Klinik und Poliklinik der Technischen Universität München.

5 https://pages.binder-world.com/zellkultur [14.05.20]

6 Schlütter J., 2010, Die unsterblichen Krebszellen der Henrietta Lacks, https://www.welt.de/gesundheit/article9762115/Die-unsterblichen-Krebszellen-der-Henrietta-Lacks.html [21.05.20]

7 Dürr I., 2016, Wie Henrietta Lacks unsterblich wurde, Der Allgemeinarzt 38 (15) Seite 100-101, https://www.allgemeinarzt-online.de/home/a/wie-henrietta-lacks-unsterblich-wurde-1788053 [14.05.20]

8 Vgl. [7] Dürr I, 2016

9 Vgl. [1] Deutsche-Apotheker-Zeitung, 2016

10 Vgl.[3] Gesundheitsindustrie BW, 2013

11 Vgl.[6] Schlütter J., 2010

12 In vitro Zytotoxizitätstestung, https://refubium.fu-berlin.de/bitstream/handle/fub188/9911/04_kap4.pdf?sequence=5&isAllowed=y [20.05.20]

13 Vgl. [7] Dürr I., 2016