Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Dark Background to Immortal Cells

By Michael Cook

The origins of human cell lines used in some of the world’s greatest medical discoveries have been called into question.

There is something quite mysterious about our attachment to our bodies. Even small tissue samples have an almost sacred value – not to the scientists who use them, perhaps, but to the people whose genes they carry.

Nothing illustrates this better than the intensely moving 2010 best-seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who was 31 when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Cells from her tumour became the first human cells cultured continuously for use in research. HeLa cells have helped to make possible some of the most important medical advances of the past 60 years, including modern vaccines, cancer treatments and IVF techniques. They are the most widely used human cell lines in existence.

There is no question about their usefulnesss – but were they ethical? Her family only learned that their mother’s cells had been scattered around the world in 1973. Their complaints were ignored for many years – after all, they were only poor, uneducated black folk.

It was only earlier this year that the US National Institutes of Health negotiated an agreement. All researchers who use or generate full genomic data from HeLa cells must now include in their publications an acknowledgement and expression of gratitude to the Lacks family.

But despite all the publicity, scientists continued to rattle the confidence of the Lacks family. Just a few months ago, German researchers published the first sequence of the full HeLa genome. This compromised not only Henrietta Lacks’s genetic privacy but also her family’s. (The researchers have removed the sequence from public view.)

Less famous, but even more important, have been WI-38 cells. HeLa cells multiply prolifically, but they are cancerous. WI-38 cells are healthy and normal and have been used to develop vaccines against rubella, rabies, adenovirus, polio, measles, chickenpox and shingles.

Their origin is even more controversial than the dark story of Henrietta Lacks. In 1962 a Swedish woman had a legal abortion at 4 months because she did not want another child. The lungs of the foetus were removed and sent to Philadelphia. At the Wistar Institute for Anatomy and Biology they were processed and cultured by Leonard Hayflick, who had been culturing cells from aborted foetuses for years, even though abortion was technically illegal in Pennsylvania at the time, except for medical emergencies.

After he successfully multiplied the WI-38 cells, Hayflick created more than 800 batches and distributed them freely around the world to drug companies and researchers. He eventually quarrelled with Wistar authorities because he thought that his contribution was being ignored. Without permission, he took all the remaining batches to California and his new job at Stanford. This led to years of bitter legal battles over who owned the cells. No one worried about where they had come from.

The abortion connection is beyond dispute but, as Nature points out, “until now, that story has failed to reach the broad audience it deserves”. Like the Henrietta Lacks case, no informed consent was given by the Swedish mother. Her identity is known but she refuses to talk about the case. The doctors involved are all dead.

The drug companies and institutions that have used WI-38 deny that there are serious ethical concerns either with the use of cells from aborted foetuses or with the lack of consent. “At the time [the foetus] was obtained there was no issue in using discarded material,” says Stanley Plotkin, a scientist who used WI-38 to develop a rubella vaccine. “Retrospective ethics is easy but presumptuous.”

But, as with the HeLa cells, many people feel uneasy about the dark origins of these life-saving vaccines. Abortion foes have complained about this for years, but they have been dismissed as conspiracy theorists or fanatics.

Now Nature, the world’s most prestigious journal, acknowledges that they do have a case. It concludes that whatever one’s views on abortion, scientists must be far more respectful of the origins of the tissue they use. “However strong the life-saving benefits seem to scientists and the medical profession, that case can always be – and should be – bolstered in the eyes of the public.”

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics website BioEdge.