I'm a newbie in biology and medicine. I understand that Henrietta Lacks provided the cells that formed the HeLa cell line with which much research has been done. Henrietta Lacks died of cancer. If we assume that she did not have cancer, every cell in her body could divide for an infinite period of time, and she never sustained any trauma ever, would Henrietta Lacks have been immortal?

Thanks, mj

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ This doesn't seem to be a question about Biology? Or is your question more generally, if someone's cells could "divide for an infinite period of time" would they be immortal. HeLa cells worked in tissue culture (TC) because of her cancer, and indeed new primary cells must be "immortalized" before they can be used in TC. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biological_immortality $\endgroup$
    – Atl LED
    Oct 24, 2013 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ I'm curious about this from a biological perspective. $\endgroup$
    – mj_
    Oct 24, 2013 at 15:27
  • $\begingroup$ Immortality does not exist and has never existed. $\endgroup$
    – Amory
    Oct 24, 2013 at 16:46

2 Answers 2


No, there was nothing special about Henrietta Lacks, apart from the fact that her cells have been used for so many years (without her knowledge or consent, by the way). She was not immortal, her tumor cells were. The HeLa cell line comes from her cervical cancer cells. The rest of the cells of her body were not immortal any more than yours or mine are.

Such immortality is a classic characteristic of cancer, in fact it is a hallmark of tumor cells. Normal cells die when they are told to, apoptosis (programmed cell death) is a normal part of a functioning, healthy organism. Tumors are collections of cells that replicate uncontrollably and do not do what they're told, including dying like good little soldiers.

That is why we often use tumoral cells for cultures, since they have been immortalized, it is relatively easy to keep them alive in the lab. This means, essentially, that they produce an enzyme called telomerase which lengthens telomeres. In normal cells, the telomeres get shorter with each round of mitosis and when they get shorter than a certain threshold, they are targeted for apoptosis. Cancer cells are protected from this by the telomerase and can therefore undergo many more rounds of reproduction.

So, the cells are not special because of the person they came from, they are special because they are cancer cells.

  • $\begingroup$ This is very interesting because I have the same understanding: "cancer cells are "immortal" in the sense of permanent division". So HeLa cells are not very specific. But sometimes, Henrietta Lacks is presented as a unique discovery. Why is that? Is it because her cells were the first to be cultivated? $\endgroup$ Aug 20, 2023 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ @totalMongot if you have a new question, please ask it separately, but no, there was nothing unique about Ms. Lacks beyond the uniqueness of every human being. The only reason she is well known is because eher cells were used (stolen, actually, but that's another story and easily googleable) and have been used ever since. $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Aug 20, 2023 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ Ok thanks, this confirms my general understanding. Any person with a cancer pathology could have provided those cells $\endgroup$ Aug 20, 2023 at 18:41

I believe your question is unclear, but if am I am understanding the question as:

If H.L., or anyone, did not develop cancer, was never introduced to any physical insult, would they be immortal?

The answer is no, they would not. When we talk about aging in biology, we use the technical term senescence. Without a cancerous influence normal aging would occur, and cell division would be halted by a number of factors. One of the best researched causes of aging is telomere shortening.

The reason that HeLa cells can be passed indefinitely is that they are immortalized. You can only get a few passages (allowing the cells to grow out from one plate to the next) out of primary cells directly from a human. This varies some based on the cell type, but is a good rule of thumb. The basic rule as to how often this can be done is described as the Hayflick limit.

So no, free of cancer and all insults may mean you lead a long life, but you will most certainly not be immortal.


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