This is excellent news. HeLa cells are the oldest and most commonly used human cell line. You might be familiar with HeLa cells already if you have read +Rebecca Skloot’s fantastic book “The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks“.
HeLa cells are derived from cervical cancer, and have been used in countless experiments, ranging from AIDS/HIV research to the development of the Polio vaccine and of course, cancer research. More often than not, the reference genome that these experimental results are compared to is the sequence from the Human Genome Project. But recall, the HGP sequenced DNA from normal human cells, not cancer cells. What would the genome sequence of a cancer cell look like?
For the first time, researchers at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory have sequenced HeLa cells. And the results are fascinating. Cancer truly wreaks havoc at the DNA level and we can actually see the effects when we compare it with normal human DNA sequences:
“The scientists’ analysis of the HeLa genome revealed widespread abnormalities in both the number and structure of chromosomes, as well as factors commonly associated with cancer cells like losing healthy copies of genes. In particular, the researchers found that countless regions of the chromosomes in each cell were arranged in the wrong order and had extra or fewer copies of genes. This is a telltale sign of chromosome shattering, a recently discovered phenomenon associated with 2-3% of all cancers. Knowledge of the genetic landscape of these cells can inform the design of future studies using HeLa cells, and strengthen the biological conclusions that can be made from them”
This work provides an amazing look at the vast scale of genetic devastation that takes place in a cancer cell. You can read the published paper here (yay #openaccess!) and the EMBL has a great press release here.