• Question: Hello! Could I enquire how popular the usage of Hela cells is in scientific research nowadays? - What are the particular advantages of their characterisics in practical? -How do scientists avoid the mutation in Hela cells to maintain a clone of cells with the same property? -Is there any probe to indicate the occurence of faulty replication? I look forward to your reply! Thank you.

    Asked by amandazzh to Jo, Loren, Lucy, Sam, Toby on 23 Jun 2014.
    • Photo: Loren Macdonald

      Loren Macdonald answered on 23 Jun 2014:

      Hi, what an interesting question!

      We use HeLa cells in our lab- although not that often because they are faulty in a gene that we study.

      Advantages wise- they’re very easy to culture- they grow quickly, they are generally quite ‘happy’ cells that aren’t upset too easily and they are quite easy to manipulate. We can easily alter them genetically- although not as easily as other cell lines (for example. HEK293 cells that were made in the lab so are fit for purpose).

      You usually don’t use HeLa cells beyond a certain point. You have to split them (throw some away and put less into a new flask) often and therefore this is an indicator of age. You can often tell if the cells are getting ‘old’ because they grow differently, look different etc. It’s all about getting to know your cells.

    • Photo: Jo Nettleship

      Jo Nettleship answered on 23 Jun 2014:

      Hi amandazzh,

      HeLa cells are used in research, however the most common mammalian cells for producing proteins are HEK (human embryonic kidney) cells and CHO (chinese hamster ovary) cells. HEK are used a lot in academic labs and CHO in industry as they are not derived from humans. Therefore if you make a therapeutic, there is no chance it might contain human viral DNA. For HEKs, the major advantage is that they are very easy to transfect – that is to get your DNA clone into the cells. You can do this using special lipid containing solutions which allow the DNA to pass through the cell membrane. For HeLa and other mammalian cells you have to use other methods such as electoporation where you disrupt the membrane of the cell with electricity to get the DNA in.
      In terms of mutations, you ask an interesting question which many labs ask and there is no clear answer to. As each lab cultures its own cells, HeLa or HEK or CHO, mutations happen. Therefore my HEK cells are not exactly the same as someone elses. This can be an advantage as mine may work better and in fact this is how some strains of cell line with certain properties have come onto the market. For example, human cells which grow to very high densities so you can have more cells in the same amount of media so you get more protein per ml.
      I hope this helps,

    • Photo: Tobias Warnecke

      Tobias Warnecke answered on 23 Jun 2014:

      Hi amandazzh,

      usage remains really quite popular. That’s mainly because, as Loren said, they grow very quickly and historically, they have been around for a long time (since the 60s) so people are used to using them. But HeLa cells are a mess. No two HeLa cultures are the same. They are mostly triploid (3 copies of a chromosome rather than the normal 2 = diploid), but some chromosomes may be present in 7 copies in some cultures and in 11 copies in other cultures. The genome is really dynamic and that throws up the problems you alluded to: ideally, you want a cell line where, in every lab in the world, the properties are the same. That’s not always the case for HeLa, although some centres that specialize in growing cells try to keep it more or less the same by minimizing the number of generations it grows (and regrowing from stock that’s in the freezer).

      I sequenced a HeLa genome once – it wasn’t pretty…

      Another book recommendation: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” – very well written, scientifically accurate, and historically quite interesting too!

    • Photo: Lucy Remnant

      Lucy Remnant answered on 24 Jun 2014:

      I use HeLa cells when I do screens of lots if different cell lines to see if they react the in the same way as the other cell lines I’m looking at or differently. Because they are so mutated it is interesting to see if what I am doing causes them to do what I would expect from any cell or whether they are completely different.