Dr. George Otto Gey (1899–1970) was an American cell biologist who played a pivotal role in developing the first immortalized human cell line, the HeLa cell line. He obtained these cells from a cervical cancer biopsy taken from Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman, in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.
Dr. Gey was the head of tissue culture research at Johns Hopkins and had been working on establishing a continuous line of human cells for research purposes. Prior to obtaining Henrietta Lacks’ cells, he had been unsuccessful in his attempts to establish a human cell line that could survive and proliferate indefinitely in the laboratory.
Henrietta’s cancer cells exhibited unique properties, such as rapid growth and the ability to survive in a laboratory setting. Recognizing their potential, Dr. Gey successfully cultured the cells and established the HeLa cell line. He shared these cells with other researchers around the world, which led to numerous scientific breakthroughs and advancements in biomedical research, including the development of the polio vaccine, cancer research, and gene mapping.
While Dr. Gey’s work with HeLa cells has had a significant impact on scientific research, it has also raised important ethical questions regarding the use of human tissue samples, informed consent, and the rights of patients and their families. Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken without her knowledge or consent, and her family was not made aware of the use of her cells in research until decades later.
The ethical concerns surrounding Dr. Gey’s work with HeLa cells have contributed to increased awareness and changes in policies regarding informed consent, patient privacy, and the use of human biological materials in research.