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A Story about ‘Immortal’ Cells of Henrietta Lacks

Wed, Dec 15, 2010

Immortality, Stem cells

A Story about ‘Immortal’ Cells of Henrietta Lacks

The discovery of the HeLa cell line has promoted remarkable biomedical research. It has contributed to the development of polio vaccine and even vitro fertilization.

The indefinite force of these cells is present in the cell’s potential to proliferate and grow indefinitely. The fascinating thing is that few people know that these cells originally came from a poor Southern tobacco farmer, named Henrietta Lacks. At Johns Hopkins University, she was provided with special treatment for cervical cancer. During the treatment, the doctor used samples of her body tissues to progress in research. She deceased some 60 years ago from cancer; nevertheless, her cells are still being used today but without her consent.

For instance, a book entitled The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks written by Rebecca provides insight about how the cells have been used over years.

According to Skloot, Lacks’ cells were first being used in 1951. In that time, the potential use of these cells was unknown.

In that time, there weren’t any need to provide consents before taking tissue samples. It was a normal thing. Nonetheless, the unregulated medical treatments had its drawbacks as people could be injected with radioactive materials simply for experimental purposes.

The medical tests and research that were done on Henrietta’s body tissues could never have been predicted 60 years ago. It would be impossible to forecast that someone’s body tissues would become as important as the HeLa cell line.

In that time, DNA wasn’t even discovered. It is frankly logic that consent and rights associated to cells were totally inexistent.

For instance, when Lacks was provided with treatments for her cervical cancer, she was provided with chemotherapy and radiation. These treatments made her infertile, and the medical professionals didn’t even acknowledge that the medical intervention carried such a risk with it.

In the past, doctors did rarely give details of what medical conditions the patient was suffering from. People were simply given treatment and sent home.

According to Skloot, the treatment offered by the Johns Hopkins’ public ward was of a relatively high quality considering Lacks’ economic status as an African-American woman.

The philosophy in the past was simple. We provide you with medical care that you wouldn’t afford otherwise, and the disbursement will simply be that you will be used in research.

Moreover, America’s medical history has been a cause of division. For example, African American patients were commonly provided with inferior treatments. Besides, black patient received medical intervention only when their medical condition had progressed to a severe stage. They were also not provided with similar pain management treatment as for white patients. The result was that black patients were more likely to die from their diseases than white patients.

The same condition applied for Lacks. However, the struggle is who is going to earn all the profit from these stolen cells? The HeLa cells were the first cell to be grown and equally commercialized.

Currently, trading of tissues, cells and genes has turned into a multi-billion dollar industry. According to Skloot the whole industry started with her cells.

For instance, Dr. George Gay was the one who first cultivated Lacks’ cells. He did also distribute the cell to colleagues at no cost. Some years after, even a factory was established for the production of HeLa (Henrietta Lacks) cells. There were nearly 6 trillion HeLa cells produced per week for profit.

Skloot claims that growing cells was often too time-consuming so scientists preferred to buy cells so that they could concentrate on the research itself. So in the past, growing and selling cells was mainly for science purposes with a diminutive profit.

However, today everything has changed a Vial of HeLa cells are available online for nearly $250 per vial.

The question is who should have the right to earn a profit from HeLa’s cells. The answer to this concern is complex. First if the cells of Henrietta hadn’t been used on the cancer table then they would already have died. It has required innovative technology to keep her cell line alive, and they have today helped in the development of various medical treatments. In other words, the HeLa cell line has saved the lives of millions of people.

Source: NPR.org

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