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Biotech Medicine Science

Most Popular Human Cell In Science Gets Sequenced 63

ananyo writes "The research world's most famous human cell has had its genome decoded, and it's a mess. German researchers this week report the genome sequence of the HeLa cell line, which originates from a deadly cervical tumor taken from a patient named Henrietta Lacks (Slashdot has previously noted a film made about the cells and there's a recent mutli-award winning book on Lacks). Established the same year that Lacks died in 1951, HeLa cells were the first human cells to grow well in the laboratory. The cells have contributed to more than 60,000 research papers, the development of a polio vaccine in the 1950s and, most recently, an international effort to characterize the genome, known as ENCODE. The team's work shows that HeLa cells contain one extra version of most chromosomes, with up to five copies of some, and raises further questions over the widespread use of HeLa cells as models for human cell biology."
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Most Popular Human Cell In Science Gets Sequenced

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  • I wonder if she will be cloned in the distant future? Ideal source material to use for consistent, replicable experimental results over a long period of time. Fix the 'infinite lives' mod that's gotten into the genome and it's perfect. She really will live forever I think.

    • Re:Cloning (Score:5, Interesting)

      by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Friday March 15, 2013 @03:43PM (#43185569)
      That's not Ms. Lack's genome anymore. The summary says it has more than the usual number of chromosomes. Cancer cells generally lose the ability to maintain their genomes, they become very unstable, allowing a bizzare, short-term form of evolution to occur. More mutations allow the cancer to get better at proliferating and invading, at least right up until the host dies. Usually, anyway, HeLa is or was unique in that it managed to escape it's own doom, much like we might need to do with Earth.

      Sorry, got off topic there. Anyway, cloning HeLa cells, as in putting the genome into a fertilized egg like Dolly the sheep, that would probably not make a complete embryo. I'm not familiar with HeLa's genome, but I think it's likely they've lost the ability to control cell division, cell death, and/or cell differentiation. You need those processes to make anything that looks like an embryo. You'd likely end up with just another petrie dish of HeLa cells. It would be a neat if ethically questionable experiment.
      • >> Usually, anyway, HeLa is or was unique in that it managed to escape it's own doom, much like we might need to do with Earth.

        Well, it seems that someone cloned George Carlin and he now goes by the nickname "interkin3tic". Welcome back! :-D
      • Indeed. The book suggests, and I agree, that effectively HeLa is it's own species. it was already abnormal for a human cell, being cancerous, and since then various mutations have taken it even farther from the normal human genome.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Not to mention that is creepy as shit. She has already had her cells and genome taken from her without permission, and made any number of scientists and companies very well off without any compensation going to her family, and now you want to clone her without her permission?
      She was a living breathing human being with agency, lets not make any more of a mockery of medical ethics than we already have.

      • I am confused – what do you think a better idea would be?

        Let each person copy write their genes? Every time a scientist wants to study the process of life they have to pay you? Maybe if you have a special gene you get a cut from any drug that is developed from it? (That idea, thankfully, has been struck down by Federal Court.)

        • You appear to believe that genomes are or should be copyrightable.

          On what basis do you make this assumption?

          • No I don't - If you had read the parent they suggested she should have been compensated for the use of her genetic material - which natural leads to copy write of said material, which would be a very bad idea.

      • Imagine that tomorrow, we found a way to clone Albert Einstein. Let's make that a few hundred clones, to compensate for developmental factors. Now, according to you, we ought not to do that because we can't ask? There's little logic in that. Honestly, I have no Idea why I should have any control or say as far as any potential clones of mine are concerned, including during my lifetime. See, they would be physically separate human beings with rights of their own, having nothing to do with me. I don't see how
  • by i kan reed ( 749298 ) on Friday March 15, 2013 @03:21PM (#43185361) Homepage Journal

    5 copies of some chromosomes? That seems likely to be an artifact of many many generations of mitosis, not something the original sample had. The good news is that we'll have better experimental controls in future science. The bad news is that this might invalidate a lot of research.

    • by the biologist ( 1659443 ) on Friday March 15, 2013 @03:30PM (#43185441)

      The original sample was the cancer which killed Henrietta Lacks. Cancers generally have rampant chromosomal aberrations, though it is not entirely reasoned out if the aberrations are a cause or consequence of the unregulated growth which defines the cancer.

      This result doesn't invalidate any science. Every experiment using a model teaches us something about the model. We make inferences from those results which we apply and test in other systems, such as human medicine. Given that there are humans walking around with alterations to their chromosomes (admittedly at a lesser level than this), even results from one human don't necessarily apply to any other human.

      • Sure, I get what you're saying. Invalidates is way too strong a word. But you have to acknowledge that 5 is possibly not characteristic of the cancer when she died, that the strain may have had more mutation since being created, right?

        • by pchimp ( 767649 ) on Friday March 15, 2013 @04:40PM (#43186051)
          You're exactly right, and this type of criticism does come up occasionally when using HeLa. This is a cell line that is prone to mutation that has been been cultured artificially for more than half a century: it has evolved to live in a dish. It's not comparable to taking primary cells from a fresh healthy (or cancerous) human cervix. Additionally, it's fairly certain that HeLa has differentiated into a wide number of distinct cell lines at this point, though we still generally refer to it as a monolithic cell line.

          It does not invalidate studies using HeLa, but it kind of highlights that HeLa is more properly viewed as a model organism (i.e. an easily bred life form that can teach us about basic biological principles, and is also close enough to humans to be medically relevant). And this is how it is used -- biologists are not unaware of the caveats associated with these lines.
        • by glwtta ( 532858 )
          You're not getting it. It's likely that the 5 copies were characteristic of the cancer cells when she died - as the parent said, cancer cells are all sorts of fucked up.

          That's entirely besides the point, though. These cell lines are not used as a model of cancer they're used as a model of human cells. Those working with them understand the limitations of the model (most of the time, at least); it's well known that cell lines are not the same thing as cells in a live organism, no one was assuming otherw
      • The original sample was the cancer which killed Henrietta Lacks. Cancers generally have rampant chromosomal aberrations, though it is not entirely reasoned out if the aberrations are a cause or consequence of the unregulated growth which defines the cancer.

        Let's call that YES and YES. Without genetic abnormality, there can be no cancer. Once the cancer exists, it evolves on its own, independent of the reproductive or even survival criteria of the parent organism. It evolves on its own, adapting itself to whatever conditions it exists in and growing as fast as possible.

        It would be possible at least in principle for any individual animal or plant to spawn many new species of microbes that exist in the wild or possibly could invade other organisms. It's unlikely though. Our cells are the products of a billion generations of adaptation to functioning in a muliticellular organism. It's unlikely that they could exist on their own outside our bodies long enough to adapt -- except in the lab.

    • by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Friday March 15, 2013 @03:45PM (#43185587)
      I doubt it will invalidate much research. Everyone who uses them is aware that HeLa cells aren't really "human" cells, all research should have been based on the understanding that the genome was a bloody mess. Most of the research I've seen on it has been about cell division, which it doesn't seem too messed up with.
      • by pchimp ( 767649 )

        Most of the research I've seen on it has been about cell division, which it doesn't seem too messed up with.

        Though I broadly agree with your observation (cell division is one of the most highly regulated cellular processes, and prone to failure if anything is screwed up), it is worth noting that HeLa does seem to have a problem, or at least abnormality, with the spindle checkpoint (a critical mechanism in cell division) if it has many multiple chromosome copies.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Actually, in my lab we have analyzed a number of primary tumors (not cell lines) and we have found this kind of genomic aberrations in most of them. It really depends on the tumor type.

  • by Culture20 ( 968837 ) on Friday March 15, 2013 @04:46PM (#43186115)
    ...with the ghost of Ms. Lacks. They'd have to salt & burn every last cell line.
  • That must be a new one. I've never heard of the "mutli" award.

    (Can't people even take care to make a summary correct?)

  • Compared to Henrietta Lacks, it's interesting to note that her cell line is a much more successful offspring, in a way, being cultured up to thousands of times her body weight in labs around the world. Anyway in my work modelling toxicological processes I like to avoid depending just on carcinoma data. All of them have shotgunned DNA and I really don't think the data they give is that useful other than for very basic ball park measurements. This is partly because they are too resilient and partly because th
  • When doctors were treated as gods and never had to ask for permission to treat their patients as cars in a DIY junk yard, taking what they wanted.

FORTUNE'S FUN FACTS TO KNOW AND TELL: A giant panda bear is really a member of the racoon family.