Henrietta Lacks could scarcely have imagined her importance in future scientific research. When she died of cervical cancer in 1951, cells extracted from her tumour were the first human cells successfully grown in culture. Dubbed HeLa (pictured using fluorescence microscopy), they have since formed the basis for groundbreaking discoveries and are still extensively used worldwide. However, recent sequencing of their genome suggests caution is needed. Comparison with the reference human genome and healthy human cells reveals many abnormalities, including the presence of multiple copies of most chromosomes, changes in gene order, and higher expression of over 2000 genes. Some differences, such as rearrangements on chromosome 11, may have contributed to causing her cancer, but others could have arisen spontaneously while the cells were kept in culture. Although they remain useful tools, especially in cancer research, these anomalies highlight potential limitations of HeLa cells as a general model for human biology.
Written by Emmanuelle Briolat
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