Where do my cells come from?

In the biomedical sciences we do a huge number of experiments on cells grown in culture including human cell lines.

Where do all these cells come from?

It’s an important question to ask.

I got my first job in science as a fairly low level technician working at UCSD in La Jolla and my main responsibility was growing cells in culture. In that particular lab we almost exclusively grew human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVECs).

I was intimately acquainted with where our HUVECs came from because we only used primary cells that grew for a limited number of passages so on a regular basis I would drive down to a hospital in San Diego to the maternity ward and pick up umbilical veins from fresh placenta. Believe me, that made an impression on me.

Later on I worked in another lab and there too grew a variety of cells in culture. Then also as a grad student and postdoc, I spent countless hours growing cells.

It seems like ever since either I or my lab has been growing cells in culture, probably close to a hundred or more different types of cells.

I always ask myself a series of question “where do these cells come from? Is there a patient and a person story behind cell line XYZ? What’s the history?”

The importance of these questions is illustrated by the wonderful book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Henrietta Lacks was a real, living, breathing woman who had the misfortune of having cancer. From her cancer was derived one of the most common cell lines used in biomedical sciences called HeLa for which she never gave consent.

No one in science really gave much thought to where HeLa cells came from until Skloot’s book was published and even to this day more generally, few people consider where the cells that they work with originated.

The astonishing, yet simple answer for almost all human cell lines is that they of course came from people, most often folks who had the misfortune of getting cancer. Cancer lines are popular in science not just for studying cancer, but also more generally because they are immortal making them a good resource.

It is important to keep in mind the source of the cells that we as scientists study not only for philosophical reasons, but also because cell lines come with some associated problems. For example, cell lines, particularly those passed from lab to lab are often infected with viruses and other pathogens including mycoplasma. In addition, there are concerns that a significant number of cell lines are contaminated with other types of cells.

There are also cell lines that came from blastocysts and these we of course call embryonic stem cells (ESC). I personally do not believe that blastocysts are human beings, but I still believe that scientists who use human ESC should give thought to where they come from.