A Cell Donation Day That Will Live in Infamy–Part II

Posted on April 24, 2012 by


So back to Henrietta Lacks and her overly hardy–some say virulent–cervical cancer cells. You may recall from last post that Ms. Lacks’ cells, entitled HeLa, were taken without her permission, and without recompense to the family. They were nabbed by one Dr. George Gey, head of tissue research at Johns Hopkins, where Ms. Lacks was treated. And with his propogation of her cancerous tissues he created the closest thing we have to human immortality–a cell line that never quits.

Dr. Alan Cantwell, cancer and AIDS researcher, writes [in a truly odd piece, if truth be told] of how astonished researchers of the day were:

For some unknown reason, Henrietta’s cancer cells continued to grow vigorously. The cells did not age. Instead, if fed properly they could live and multiply indefinitely. Amazingly, her new tissue culture “cell line” proved to be “immortal.” These malignant cells became the first successful human tissue culture cell line in medical history-the now famous HeLa cell line. . .

Gey, somewhat stingy in offering the Lacks family anything, was extremely generous in sharing the HeLa cells. HeLa divided and conquered in labs throughout the world as researcher transferred them to researcher, even across international boundaries.

And then it came back to bite the scientists, and set back cancer research years.

HeLa cells, called the "workhorses of cancer research" (from Kristina Yu, © Exploratorium, www.exploratorium.edu)

In 1966, Stanley Gartler, a cell and molecular biologist, became the first to reveal a very unpleasant truth to the cancer research community. After locating a gene specific to African-Americans in 18 separate supposedly Caucasian cell lines, Gartler came to the conclusion that HeLa was overtaking these cells.

Hela cells dividing–on their way to conquering

And then it got even worse. In 1974, a cell culture expert by the name of Walter Nelson-Rees discovered widespread contamination of cell lines with HeLa, and had the moxie to share his findings–publicly. Rees, co-author of “Henrietta Lacks, HeLa cells, and cell culture contamination,” found that

Forty different human cell culture lines, used extensively in labs worldwide, were contaminated with HeLa. Millions of dollars worth of published cancer research experiments were ruined. “Liver cells” and “monkey cells” used in cancer experiments turned out to be Henrietta’s cervical cancer in disguise (see Cantwell).

And things didn’t stay close to home. In that same year, 5 cell lines claimed to be of human lineage were sent here from the Soviet Union. All of the lines were discovered to be of HeLa origin (see Lucey & Rees).

It was a complete fiasco.

Writes Stephen O’Brien from the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity, National Cancer Institute,  in Maryland, of that time:

Human emotions were on edge, red faces were appearing in the most prestigious laboratories, and discussions of the problem rapidly lost any semblance of civility. The cost, both monetary and to science, of cell line mix-ups is considerable. Hundreds of scientific reports based on fraudulent cell lines were published, and tainted research, estimated in value well in excess of 10 million dollars, was discredited. Each incident of cell contamination had a lead researcher’s name attached, and all were branded with Nelson-Rees’ “scarlet letter,” even if they had not actually caused the mix-up. Careers were derailed, epithets were slung, and science stumbled [italics mine].

And with that anger, and the threat to careers and financing, came the downfall, not of sloppy cancer research practices, but of Nelson-Rees.

The little lady that started this big cellular contamination war

An editorial published Nature, called him a “self-appointed vigilante,” his published work was referred to as the ‘hit list’ because of how damaging it could be to reputations, and he even received an anonymous telegram offering him a one-way ticket to South Africa.

Nelson-Rees bowed under the pressure and retired, and the tremendous hubbub he had created subsided for a bit. There was simply too much riding on it for the research community as a whole to accept his findings.

And, although some safeguards have been put into place to try to prevent such widescale contamination nowadays (in fact, HeLa’s unparalleled aggressiveness is so great that if a lab wants to use it, they’re not currently allowed to use any other cell line), the mess-ups continue.

The Wall Street Journal opens its article on cell contamination with the story of cancer researcher Robert Mandic, who spent years studying a rare head-and neck cancer, and finally had his article published on the topic in Oral Oncology. Turns out, he learned, he had been studying nothing other than Ms. Lacks’ cervical cancer cells. [He notified the journal which withdrew the article.]

In the 2010 article “Check your cultures! A list of cross-contaminated or misidentified cell lines,” the authors write that “Cross-contamination, in which the contaminant is another cell line, was first recognized in the 1950s but, disturbingly, remains a serious issue today.” And my guess is you won’t be surprised who the biggest culprit is.

The researchers put together a list of 360 known cross-contaminated cell lines. The most common? HeLA, contaminating 106/360, or 29%, of human cell lines.

Some scientists despair of ever being clear of the contamination.  They suggest that one of the biggest hurdles in finding a cancer cure isn’t even in penetrating the mysteries of tumor growth itself–but in scientists’ refusal to address the issue forthrightly.

John Masters, a professor at the Institute of Urology at the University College London, has had more than enough, and is skeptical that researchers will finally take notice, as he told the Journal:

Screaming and shouting, it doesn’t do any good. No one takes any notice for reasons I don’t understand. The whole ethos of science is to strive for the truth and produce a balanced argument about the evidence. Yet, all this crap is being produced.

Not to be outdone by that statement, he writes in his article “HeLa cells 50 years on: the good, the bad and the ugly,” that in the cancer community, “chaos reigns and fraud —unwitting or deliberate — is condoned.”

Inspiring, right? Breeds confidence in the system. It’s hard to explain it.

Could it be a last laugh on the part of Henrietta Lacks, perhaps? She received nothing for her contribution–but her ability to replicate and take over, messing with the scientific powers that be, continues on, unabated.


Capes-Davi A. Check your cultures! A list of cross-contaminated or misidentified cell lines. International Journal of Cancer 2010; 127(1):1-8.

Cantwell A. Immortal HeLa Cells And The Continuing Contamination Of Cancer And Vaccine Research, 2-7-10 at http://www.rense.com/general89/immot.htm.

Fung B. ‘Oops, Wrong Cancer’: How Contaminated Cell Lines Produce Bad Research. The Atlantic; April 23, 2012.

Lucey BP, Nelson-Rees WA, Hutchins GM. Henrietta Lacks, HeLa cells, and cell culture contamination. Archives of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine 2009; 133(9):1463-7.

Marcus AD. Lab Mistakes Hobble Cancer Studies But Scientists Slow to Take Remedies. Wall Street Journal; April 20, 2011.

Masters JR. HeLa cells 50 years on: the good, the bad and the ugly. Nature Reviews Cancer 2002; 2:315-319.

Ncayiyana DJ. The extraordinary story of the life after death of Henrietta Lacks. South African Medical Journal 2011; 101(3):141.

O’Brien SJ. Cell culture forensics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2001;  98(14): 7656–7658.