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He La cells are rapidly dividing cancer cells, and the number of chromosomes varied during cancer formation and cell culture.
The current estimate (excluding very tiny fragments) is a "hypertriploid chromosome number (3n )" which means 76 to 80 total chromosomes (rather than the normal diploid number of 46) with 22–25 clonally abnormal chromosomes, known as He La signature chromosomes." The signature chromosomes can be derived from multiple original chromosomes, making challenging summary counts based on original numbering.
This made He La cells highly desirable for polio vaccine testing since results could be easily obtained.
A large volume of He La cells were needed for the testing of Salk's polio vaccine, prompting the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) to find a facility capable of mass-producing He La cells.
He La cells have also been used in a number of cancer studies, including those involving sex steroid hormones such as estradiol, estrogen, and estrogen receptors, along with estrogen-like compounds such as quercetin and its cancer reducing properties.
There have also been studies on He La cells, the effects of flavonoids and antioxidants with estradiol on cancer cell proliferation.
The cells were propagated by George Otto Gey shortly before Lacks died of her cancer in 1951.
This was the first human cell line to prove successful in vitro, which was a scientific achievement with profound future benefit to medical research.
Horizontal gene transfer from human papillomavirus 18 (HPV18) to human cervical cells created the He La genome, which is different from Henrietta Lacks' genome in various ways, including its number of chromosomes.
Gey freely donated these cells along with the tools and processes that his lab developed to any scientist requesting them simply for the benefit of science.
Neither Lacks nor her family gave permission to harvest the cells but, at that time, permission was neither required nor customarily sought.
The He La cell lines are also notorious for invading other cell cultures in laboratory settings.
It is estimated that He La cells, at one point, contaminated millions of dollars' worth of biological research.