This website on cultured cancer cells () says cancer cells may be immortal.

I am wondering if there has been any research done to find if cancer cells are really immortal.

  1. How old is the still maintained living oldest culture of cancer cells?
  2. Has there been any research done on replicative senescence of Cancer Cells invitro?

Edit 1:

If there is some data relating to the number of replications the cells have undergone, it will be very useful


3 Answers 3


The HeLa cell line is undoubtedly the most used and investigated human immortal tumor cell line. Extracted from a cervical tumor from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 at Johns Hopkins hospital, Baltimore, MD these cells proved immortal and are still used in many, many labs worldwide today. It is the oldest human cell line in use and, therefore, the oldest human tumor cell line (Callaway, 2013).

In terms of senescence of immortal cells; HeLa cells are immortal, and hence do not grow old as such. However, they are subject to mutations and the genetic profile of HeLa cells does change over time. Hence, although they may not be growing old, they do age in the sense that mutations are accumulating in continuous cell lines.

Callaway, Nature (2013); 500: 132-3

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    $\begingroup$ Will add refs later, I am mobile. Informative website: nature.com/news/deal-done-over-hela-cell-line-1.13511 $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Jan 26, 2015 at 10:49
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    $\begingroup$ Take your time @ChrisStronks $\endgroup$
    – One Face
    Jan 26, 2015 at 10:50
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    $\begingroup$ very interesting read Chris, Thanks for the link $\endgroup$
    – One Face
    Jan 26, 2015 at 10:56
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisStronks CTVT is not a cell line, it is a natural tumour that has become infectious (thereby making it a pathogenic parasite). A good recent example of a retrograde evolution. $\endgroup$
    Jan 26, 2015 at 12:03
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    $\begingroup$ @WYSIWYG I removed CTVT from my answer. Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Jan 26, 2015 at 12:04

I think, a story about Alexis Carrel and Leonard Hayflick is appropriate here.

In the beginning of 20th century a Nobel prize-winning medicist/biologist Alexis Carrel published a series of papers, claiming that growth of a culture of cells of normal somatic differentiated tissue can be maintained indefinitely without undergoing cellular senescence. This wrong result was held for a fact for many years, before being disproved by Leonard Hayflick, who's shown that normal somatic cells undergo a limited number of divisions before dying and immoratlization happens in cancer cells. It's worth mentioning that the cause of Dr.Carrel's error might be attributed to his personality. For instance (quote from Wikipedia):

Carrel claimed the existence of a "hereditary biological aristocracy" and argued that "deviant" human types should be suppressed using techniques similar to those later employed by the Nazis.

So, the results of his finding might be attributed to a version that he's just scared his laboratory members so much, that they started to secretly replace a deteriorating culture with a new one.

I may be rough on the corners and attribute sins to the man, he's innocent of. For a "fair trial" with evidence etc., you'd better address this paper: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1082700/

See also this popular paper: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/feb/18/haruko-obokata-stap-cells-controversy-scientists-lie


Terminology involved makes everything lie a bit.

All the "immortality" and so complicate things a bit. We perceive life as life of our individual bodies. Thus if our body is immortal, that means that it is persistent, without us bothering about our individual cells.

But, there isn't any distinction like that in single cell organisms where cells themselves are taken as "individuals". When cell divide, there isn't usually any distinction of which one is "mother" and which one is "daughter". Both new cells are usually the same. So either it may seem that cells are immortal because they are not dying by old age, or that we define new cells as new individuals and thus the old one died to give birth of two new ones.

But we could take certain aspect of this viewpoint on multicellular organisms as well. Our bodies are defacto created by very old cell-line (or in sexually engaged organism, two cell lines) and then this cell-line created vehicle for itself. From this viewpoint, which is not very different from viewpoint taken when speaking about these laboratory cell-lines, whole life is single cell-line. And from this point of view, life itself is immortal.

So the whole problem is that our point of view, on which we define immortality and individuals, is made only for special types of organism, as has no sense when speaking about single cell organisms. Immortality of cancer cells is thus only buzzword.

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    $\begingroup$ You're not even wrong $\endgroup$
    – tel
    Jul 17, 2015 at 4:48

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