by Noel Jackson
figures by Daniel Utter

Have you ever wondered how scientists study human tissue in the lab? They do so with the help of authentic human cells. Normal cells in the human body have a finite number of replications, which limits their lifespan. Immortal cancer cells escape this limit and replicate indefinitely, making them ideal for research that requires a constant supply of quickly growing cells. Today, thousands of distinct proliferative human cell cultures called “cell lines” are used as biospecimens in medical research. The discovery of naturally occurring immortal cells occurred 70 years ago with the identification of a cell line called HeLa. The HeLa cell line still lives today and is serving as a tool to uncover crucial information about the novel coronavirus.

HeLa cells were the first human cells to survive and thrive outside the body in a test tube. Ever since then, HeLa cell lines have been used in more than 100,000 scientific PubMed publications on a range of topics including cancer, cell biology, genetics, and infectious diseases. Plus, studies in this cell line have led to pioneering discoveries that have merited three Nobel prizes to date!

But where do these cells come from? As it turns out, they originate from the uterus of a 31-year-old African American mother who was diagnosed with an unusually aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951. The young woman’s name was Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks and her special cells

Henrietta Lacks grew up with extended relatives in a poor community in Clover, Virginia. As a child, she worked on the family farm growing tobacco. Ten years after moving to Baltimore, Maryland with her husband and children, she entrusted Dr. Howard Jones at Johns Hopkins Hospital to treat the pain she began to experience in her abdomen. Dr. Jones diagnosed her with cervical cancer. While Lacks succumbed to the cancer a few months later, an extension of her lives on as a crucial tool in science. Her immortal cells remain circulating among scientists in laboratories all over the world today.

Without her knowledge or permission, pieces of the tumor from her cervix were taken and given to Dr. George Otto Gey for cancer research. Like many other scientists, Dr. Gey was working to model human cancer in a test tube to develop therapeutics against the disease. While many cancer cells grow and replicate uncontrollably, those that grew as such outside the body were not known until Henrietta Lacks’s cells were discovered. Cells from her tumor grew indefinitely in flasks in Dr. Gey’s lab. The HeLa cell line, coined after the letters of her first and last names, was born.

HeLa cells revolutionized biomedical research

After their discovery, scientists were able to directly perform tests on human tissue outside the body for the first time. The excitement about HeLa cells crossed industrial and geographical boundaries (Figure 1). They were sent to space during the Space Race to uncover the impact of zero gravity on human cells. They were studied to determine the effects of radiation after nuclear bomb explosions.  They were even used by the beauty industry to test potential side-effects of new cosmetic products. The cells were used by biomedical researchers all over the world to study genetic mutations as cells divide, discover potential cancer therapeutics, and develop treatments for infectious diseases.

Figure 1: The impact of HeLa cells on biomedical research. HeLa cells represented scientists’ first opportunity to do long-term studies of human tissue outside of the human body. Many scientific and science-adjacent fields took advantage of these cells to study a variety of things, from disease prevention to Space physiology.

HeLa cells and virus research: then and now

HeLa cells were first used to study the growth and spread of poliomyelitis virus, the pathogen that causes polio. This research eventually led scientists to develop a vaccine for polio in the U.S. All children born in the U.S. now receive four doses of the inactivated poliovirus (IPV) vaccine to prepare their immune system to fend off polio infections. Now, the worldwide incidence of wild polio has dropped 99% and is completely eradicated in the Americas, Europe, South East Asia, the Western Pacific, and, most recently, Africa. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) projected that, in the absence of a vaccine, more than 17 million people would have been infected and paralyzed by the virus. Without HeLa cells, this projection may have become a globally morbid reality.

When initially discovered, HeLa cells were the human cell line of choice to study the viral pathogenesis of polio. Now, they are paving the way for COVID-19 research breakthroughs. The groundbreaking study that identified the infectivity of the virus SARS-CoV-2 in humans did so using the cells that were isolated from Henrietta Lacks. Scientists began studying COVID-19 using HeLa cells, but soon found that the virus did not infect these cells well. This curiosity led the researchers to search for the key to viral entry that was apparently missing on the HeLa cells. Other forms of the coronavirus used a molecule, called ACE2, to enter the cells. ACE2 particles surround the surface of some human cells. Maybe the novel coronavirus also enters cells through the same molecule. After engineering HeLa cells to display the ACE2 molecule, the authors observed that the novel coronavirus could then enter and infect the cells (Figure 2). ACE2 acts as an entryway for any SARS-CoV-2019 particles to recognize and bind. After entry, it can use the cell’s machinery to replicate and spread, causing the novel coronavirus disease – COVID-19. Using HeLa cells, then, the researchers discovered an important aspect of SARS-CoV-2 infectivity and thus of viral spread.

Figure 2: ACE2 receptors decorate the surface of HeLa cells to promote infection. HeLa cells do not naturally display high levels of ACE2 proteins on their surface, preventing efficient infection by SARS-CoV-2 particles. However, when researchers engineer HeLa cells to display the ACE2 protein, the viral particles gain entry into the cells and begin their cycle of infection.

Another study used HeLa cells as a tool to uncover the machinery required and process used for invasion of human cells. Researchers have also investigated the stability of the virus’s genomic material in HeLa cells by comparing its genomic material with that of many other viruses. The use of HeLa cells in COVID-19 research has provided insights on the molecular mechanics of SARS-CoV-2019 and the components required for infection. These data are pieces of information that come together to build a greater understanding of the virus, which is essential for developing future treatment.

A lasting contribution to the world

When Henrietta Lacks and her cells alerted the world to the existence of immortal human cells, opportunities arose for research and medical treatment development. Today, her cells continue to serve academic and industrial institutions. So much so that she has been described as the Mother of Modern Medicine in a painting by artist Kadir Nelson in 2017. The use of HeLa cells in COVID-19 research is a testament to Henrietta Lacks’s lasting contribution to provide microscopic tools for scientific discoveries that billions have benefitted from thus far and will benefit from in the future to come.

Noel Jackson is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program.

Daniel Utter is a 6th year Ph.D. student in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.

For more information:

  • Stay up-to-date on the use of HeLa cells in biomedical research by visiting here
  • Check out original research publications that use HeLa cells for COVID-19 discoveries here and here


  • The Henrietta Lacks Family Foundation

41 thoughts on “Vessels for Collective Progress: the use of HeLa cells in COVID-19 research

  1. I just finished reading HeLa’s story and am eager to know more about the recent happening to the cell and Hela’s family. It seems that the Foundation is going on the right track and doing well. I am glad that HeLa cell continues to make contribution to the Biological and Pharma industry. I do hope that my knowledge, learning and interaction with the researchers and manufacturing entities (CDMO) such as Boston Institute of Biotechnology ( can help the people fighting with rare diseases and defeating the infectious ones such as COVIC-19.

    1. I am actually researching this right now in class and I have found out that the Hospital where Henrietta Lacks’s cells were taken (John Hopkins Hospital.) Actually got consent from the family and partnered up with them to make several programs and scholarships in her name.

        1. this is a forced foundation not a family foundation. Also we all know they used GMO cells to propagate the covid virus in Turkey as they were trying to start another Coup, just like that one time they did that. As always “aint no planet X coming cuz aint not space cuz aint no globe earth”.

        2. That is a good thing for them to do, but what happens at (john hopkins university, where the rare experiment and her death Was concern , was very very very “UNFAIR” the Lacks family should be rich because of her “UNIQUE CELLS” but however, that is not the case, sorry!

        1. Where did you find this information that her husband could not read and didn’t know what he was signing.

      1. That partnership would have to be recent as there was no consent, informed or otherwise to Ms. Lacks or anyone in her family at the time the cells were taken around 1951.

      2. That was late, but it doesn’t negate the fact that blacks have been used and abused by the world medical complex for centuries. I turned your attention to “Medical Apartied,” by Harriet A. Washington to educate yourself more thoroughly on these atrocities against black Americans.

    2. There is a movie called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It sort of goes through what happened with some of her family along with her cells. Radiolab also did a story on this in 2010. I believe you can still look up the podcasts on their site if they’re not available on a podcast app.

  2. It is so amazing to me still today that Henrietta Lacks family were not contacted immediately after Dr.Gey used her cells and found them to be immortal,constantly growing to help all of mankind.
    This was morally wrong and I feel it was because she was a black poor woman.I hope her living
    family members will be compensated for her incredible cells.I think a cure for our coronavirus is hidden deep within her magnificent cells.The best known story of a woman’s cells.

    1. I have just read Henrietta`s story and I 100 % agree with you I would also add that this should be made more known to the public especially in light of the Black Lives Matter campaign to help assuage the “less aggressive” racists.
      I would also implore the Gov to memorialise Henrietta with a statue !

      1. Well I am from Mrs Lacks Autonomous Commuity, Turner Station, 2 block from Family home. There were some other medical research kids endured. In the 1950s..Mrs Lacks story should never be forgotten. I designed s product while residing in Boston, Downtown Veterans Training (Homeless Shelter) Center, 17 Court Street….the movement All Lives Matters But Particularly ‘ BLACK LIVE MATTTERS’.

      2. DEFINITELY!!
        Why isn’t this world altering contribution even mentioned to our children in school?
        Oh, I have a few theories as to why it isn’t.

    2. I think they have put HeLa cells into the vaccine.
      The vaccine is admittedly a massive experiment.
      But it hasn’t been disclosed what the experiment is.
      I believe it is an attempt on a global scale to find immortality for the elites.
      I believe African Americans have been the target for abortion clinics in the USA to find more immortal cells which I believe that’s where they found the 2 foetus’s with immortal cells that are also in use in labs.
      I think Bill Gates vaccine work especially in Africa has been early experiments with the goal of creating immortality. All have not succeeded to date, but I think HeLa cells combined with mRNA have a chance to succeed especially with billions of test subjects. This would also explain the need to do multiple injections and endless boosters, to pump more and more HeLa cells in to people.
      Those who die or have serious side effects are the test failures.
      They will keep doing the experiment till they succeed even if it kills everyone.

  3. It’s time to acknowledge the Lacks family and compensate them richly for Henrietta’s stolen cells.

  4. OK … Knowing the HeLa history, they are cancer cells. Correct?
    Therefore, polio vaccine contains Cancer, as well as upcoming vaccines for SARS-Cov 2.
    Are we getting vaccinated with Cancer Cells?
    Implications ??

    1. HeLa cells were used in researching the virus and developing the vaccine. The vaccine does not contain any cells of any kind. The vaccines contain only mRNA or DNA encoding the spike protein of the coronavirus, and a carrier or vector to bring those nucleic acids to cells in the muscle into which the vaccine is injected that will express it in order to raise an immune response. That carrier is not a Hela cell.

      1. Where does the mRNA in the coronavirus vaccine come from? Was it from nuclei in humans (fetal or adult), chimps, or some other organism? From what I have read AstraZeneca is using chimp (simian) mRNA in their vaccine.

    2. No, they are cancer cells used to exposed other cells that work for a specific illness. Hela is NOT in the vaccine, but helped lead them to it… You are NOT being injected with cancer. Her cells lived and multiplied where others died and because they lived and did not die gave them the for scientists to do research… Hope that helped ya!! RN??

    3. Yes, and because they are human DNA it is written into our DNA Helios. Why do you think children are being born with cancer now.

    4. You call yourself a nurse! Clearly you must-have failed microbiology. As I always believed, all health care providers are not clinicians.

  5. To the lady who is questioning if the vaccine is cancer cells: remember her cell studies were used to create a vaccine to eradicate polio. Thank the Lord for Henrietta Lacks.
    I read this fascinating book.

    1. There are controversies surrounding inaccuracies in the book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” and the movie adaptation. Ron Lacks, the oldest grandchild of Henrietta Lacks dispels lies, in his own memoir, “Henrietta Lacks. The Untold Story,” including in terms of the foundation set up by the author, Rebecca Skloot. Regardless and beyond the author’s personal gains in writing her version of Henrietta’s life, the fact that the medical community, specifically Johns Hopkins has never compensated the Lacks family is atrocious. Humankind may be benefiting from these cells, but so are the medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies — and nothing but symbolic gestures for the Lacks family; continued mistreatment of Black families from the medical community.

  6. Henrietta Lacks’ cells have revolutionized medicine and biomedical science. Her name should be enshrined in the halls of every medical, dental, and biomedical school. There are numerous people of African heritage (Alice Day, Benjamin Banneker, Onesimus, Charles R. Drew, Daniel Hale Williams, Alexandre Dumas I, II, & III, Frank Johnson, Henry Johnson, Katherine Johnson, etcetera) whose contributions to mankind have been downplayed or outright ignored intentionally. Yes, history needs to be retold correctly and be unbiased!

  7. To those…..! who lab engendered Hela cell and give them new name and call them Virus,

    There is no such body exists we call virus but these are Lab engineered Hela Cells soon everyone will know, influenza took over the world, they already know how contiguous Hela cell are due to this contiguous behavior these cell were discovered, these cells contaminated every lab sample and other room’s samples connected through vents.

    You created so many verities of Hela Cells to cause specific diseases, and give them different names like Hepatitis, Aids, Ebola, influenza and its all variant and the notorious one nowadays Covid-19, and flourishing Health industry and still fail to have the control on society even using electronic media, politics, and causing chaos, these such chaos are neutralized by nature time by time, however, Chaos for causing unnatural attempt to disrupt the harmony is inevitable, so much you prepare yourself your monopoly will come to an end very soon, just like inevitable death, and you leave every thing even your body, your karama will follow you till eternity,

  8. Extremely noteworthy conversations. We may not all agree completely, however, I suspect we share the same “concern” for the powerful virility of HeLa cells. Ergo: Cautiously and with great respect.

  9. They took her genes without consent. And when the cells from this black woman repelled Covid 19 experiments in China paid for by NIH Grant’s to Isreali owned co., they decided to make her genes susceptible to Covid 19 using gain of function techniques. This allowed for target attack of her African descent and advanced age. Now all elderly and peoples of color die at a higher rate than other races.

  10. Your blog has provided useful information for the work. All the tips in the post are great. Thanks for sharing. keep blogging~!

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