In Recognition of Women’s History Month
Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American wife and mother, sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital for what she described as a “knot in her womb”; the diagnosis was cervical cancer. Without her knowledge or permission, two tissue samples were taken from her tumor, and according to protocol at the time, an abbreviation of her name, “HeLa” (for Henrietta Lacks) was written on the sample tubes. “HeLa” cells are cells derived from Henrietta Lacks. This marked the beginning of a troubling legacy spawning more than six decades.
Which of the following best describes how HeLa cells helped advance biomedical research and scientific discovery?
Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920, in Clover, Virginia. She became a part of the “Great Migration,” the time in US history when African Americans left the South for points East, North and West. She moved from rural Virginia to East Baltimore, Maryland. The wife of David Lacks, and the mother of five children, died of cervical cancer at the age of 31. However, her cells, the famous “HeLa cells,” still live and continue to be used in research studies today, including nanotechnology. In fact, they have generated thousands of studies, and millions of people all over the world have benefited from the research her cells made possible.
HeLa cells were the first immortal cells to be cultured, that is grown continuously in a laboratory—a major breakthrough in biomedical research. Prior to the advent of HeLa cells, it was difficult to grow human cells in a laboratory—such cells would either immediately die or reproduce only a few times. HeLa cells made it possible for scientists to use a common cell line in studying an array of human diseases. They became the bedrock of biomedical research.
At issue is the fact that HeLa cells were taken from Mrs. Lacks without her knowledge or her approval, or that of her family. Also at issue was the fact that while millions of dollars were being made from the sale of HeLa cells and the generation of new medical discoveries, her children were reared in poverty and most often did not have health insurance. Further, without knowledge or approval of the Lacks family, German scientists sequenced the genome of the HeLa cell line, and published the data, thus potentially revealing private genetic information.
While her cells opened doors, they did not open doors for her family or others who were poor. While HeLa cells have led to critical advances in medical science, the use of her cells also created an array of legal, scientific, moral and emotional issues. Among the issues is, should the Lacks family be compensated, and if so, how?
The story of Henrietta Lacks was brought to light when, after more than ten years researching, writing, and building relationships with the Lacks family, in 2010, Rebeca Sklott, a member of the faculty of the University of Memphis, published a book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a definitive history of Henrietta Lacks and the famous “HeLa” cells. It is also a report of a social wrong committed by the medical community. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 125 weeks.
Skloot established a scholarship fund for the descendants of Henrietta Lacks. President Barack Obama established a Bioethics Advisory Panel in 2009. In 2013, an agreement was reached between the Lacks Family and the National Institutes of Health that simultaneously protects the Lacks family’s privacy, and gives biomedical researchers controlled access to the HeLa genome data, among other items. Future published research studies must also acknowledge use of HeLa cells.