The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks and Infections Below the Belt

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: An Introduction to Infectious Diseases

By Barry C. Fox, M.D., University of Wisconsin

In the 1950s, at least 15,000 women were dying of cervical cancer every year. One such diagnosis of cervical cancer in an unfortunate woman, Henrietta Lacks, turned out to be one of the most important developments in medical history.

Image of HeLa (cervical cancer) cells in culture.
HeLa (Henrietta Lacks) cells are most commonly used in biological research. (Image: Heiti Paves/Shutterstock)

Cervical Cancer Diagnosis

In the 1950s, many women were dying of cervical cancer. Ten years earlier, a Pap smear test was invented by George Papanicolaou. However, some women chose not to have the test done and 30-year-old Henrietta Lacks was one such woman.

Henrietta Lacks died in October of 1951, less than a year after her diagnosis. Just before Henrietta died, a surgeon took a sample of her tumor cells and put them in a petri dish. Over the next 24 hours, they kept reproducing over and over at a rapid pace and they never stopped.

The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks

In the 1950s, research scientists were looking to study human cells that could stay alive for many generations in cell culture. Human cells died within hours when attempts were made to grow them in a Petri dish. They needed cells that could reliably replicate and could be frozen to examine various intermediate stages. Lacks’s unlikely gift to all of us was the world’s first immortal cells.

These cells, taken from a tumor in her cervix, were known as HeLa cells.

The Polio Connection

In the 1950s, the polio epidemic was devastating and it was decided to set up a HeLa cell factory to develop trillions of cells each week to be used for vaccine development.

Having this abundant cell stock was the only way the polio vaccine could be developed quickly and mass-produced. The lab was set up at Tuskegee Institute, a prestigious Southern university. The resulting cells were sent to 23 Salk vaccine testing centers around the country and the vaccine passed the test.

Significance of HeLa Cells

Today, HeLa cells are in cell culture labs all over the world. They’re being used for many different types of research—studying genes that turn on and off cancer cells and testing different drugs for their efficacy in treating everything from leukemia to influenza.

HeLa cells were also sent on several missions to outer space to see how cells behaved under zero-gravity conditions. In fact, much of the research today in the area of sexually transmitted diseases uses HeLa cells.

This is a transcript from the video series An Introduction to Infectious Diseases. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Cystitis, the Bladder Infection

Simple illustration of the bladder with pink and brown colors. Green small cells represent the bacteria present in the bladder
Nearly every woman has had a bladder infection sometime in her life. (Image: Betty Ray/Shutterstock)

There is also a complex mix of organs involved in other infections that involve the urinary tract, prostate gland, and reproductive organs.

Usually, bladder infections in women are uncomplicated and can be treated for 3 to 7 days. Nearly every woman has had a bladder infection, otherwise known as cystitis, sometime in her life.

Bladder infections are common in women because the bacteria found near the female urethra are similar to those near the rectal area. The rectal area has a readily abundant supply of germs to cause an infection. And since the female urethra is short relative to males, it’s easier for bacteria to gain access into the female urethra.

Asymptomatic Bacteriuria

The body’s immune response will be triggered to attract white blood cells only when a true infection occurs. A true infection occurs when the bacteria invade the inner surface of the bladder wall.

Nonetheless, the presence of bacteria in the urine does not necessarily mean that there is a urinary tract infection. Sometimes, bacteria can learn to exist harmoniously in the bladder without actually causing an infection, a condition known as asymptomatic bacteriuria.

Learn more about bubonic plague, malaria, and polio.

Symptoms of Bladder Infections

When there is a real bladder infection, more than 90% of cases of cystitis will have symptoms. These symptoms, such as urinary frequency, urgency, burning or pain with urination, discomfort over the bladder, and often blood in the urine, are all too familiar to women. The body temperature may be slightly elevated as well.

Any infection in the elderly can cause a change in cognition as a manifestation of infection. But this change is non-specific and should be persistent or worsening before blaming a urinary tract infection, especially without bladder symptoms.

Should We Refuse Antibiotics?

In a report in the spring of 2014 by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the unnecessary use of antibiotics for presumptive urinary tract infections was the number one cause of antibiotic overuse, and, therefore, increased the likelihood of antibiotic resistance.

There are also myths that the use of cranberry pills or cranberry juice reduces the chances of developing an infection. Although these products are safe and have no serious side effects, studies so far have not yielded any evidence in support of the usage.

Learn more about emerging and reemerging diseases.

Pyelonephritis, the Kidney Infection

On some occasions, the bacteria causing a bladder infection can ascend the urinary tract and lead to a kidney infection, a condition that we know as pyelonephritis. The usual symptoms include a higher fever of 101 degrees and associated pain in the flank or underneath the rib cage. However, some elderly individuals may have neither fever nor back pain and still have a kidney infection.

Pyelonephritis is a more serious medical condition, and it prompts the need for stronger antibiotics for a longer duration of up to fourteen days. This condition might require intravenous antibiotics, or even hospitalization.


Men have their own unique infection of the prostate gland, called prostatitis. If bacteria enter the male bladder, they don’t have to travel very far to invade the prostate gland.

When this occurs rapidly, leading to sudden difficulties in urination and associated pelvic pain, the condition is known as acute prostatitis. An extended course of antibiotics specifically targeted at the unusual acidic environment of the prostate is needed for cure.

Common Questions about the Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks and Infections Below the Belt

Q: What was special about the cells of Henrietta Lacks?

The cells of Henrietta Lacks reproduced over and over at a rapid pace and they never stopped.

Q: Does the use of cranberry pills or cranberry juice reduce the chances of developing a bladder infection?

Several studies conducted do not provide any positive evidence in support of the usage of cranberry pills or cranberry juice to reduce the chances of developing a bladder infection.

Q: Why are bladder infections common in women?

The bacteria found near the female urethra are similar to those near the rectal area and the female urethra is shorter than those of the males, it’s easier for bacteria to gain access into the female urethra. Hence, bladder infections are common in women.

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