Henrietta Lacks has become a well-known name in the science field today, but it wasn’t always like that. Before she was only known as Hela, the first cells that could be cultured and “reproduced indefinitely,” the first line of immortal human cells (Epstein). Her cells have helped millions and have been used for countless experiments and tests, yet she herself wasn’t fully acknowledged until Rebecca Skloot wrote the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and her family was not informed that their mother’s cells were still alive until 1973, twenty two years after her death (Skloot).
Henrietta’s case is only one of hundreds of cases where their doctors unethically treat the patients and their families. In 1951 Henrietta Lacks went to John Hopkins Hospital because she felt she had a “knot on her womb” (Skloot). Her doctor did a checkup and found cancer on her cervix and she was informed to come again for treatment. On the day of her treatment, while she was unconscious because of anesthesia her doctor cut out “two dime-sized” pieces of tissues, one from her healthy cervical tissue and one from her tumor before he began the treat (Skloot).
Henrietta then spent the next two days there to recover and during that time doctors came and went, constantly checking on her “inside and out,” but never did any one of them mention the pieces of tissues taken as samples (Skloot). On the day of her treatment, Henrietta signed a consent form stating that her doctors could perform any operative procedures under any anesthetic that they deemed necessary for the treatment of her (Skloot). Henrietta did not sign any other consent form or even verbally give her doctors the approval to use her tissue for sampling (Zimmer).
She was not asked if she would like to donate her tissue for studying and testing, but rather they just took it and didn’t say anything about it. This at the time was not a huge concern to most people because they saw the actions of doctors as what was for the best and trusted them enough to not question their actions or the motives behind them. But this was not the only injustice Henrietta faced. Over the years, HeLa, the cells from the tissue taken from Henrietta’s cervix, as a sample, grew more acclaimed and the identity behind the infamous immortal cells became more pressing.
In 1971 Henrietta Lacks was correctly identified as the source of Hela, which led to many reporters and journalists becoming interested in her death and family (Sharpe). Michael Gold was a journalist who wrote the book A Conspiracy of Cells in 1985 (Skloot). This contained portions of Henrietta’s medical record and autopsy report and was published without Henrietta’s family’s knowledge or consent (Skloot). Though at the time someone publishing private information like this was not illegal, it was illegal for the hospital, John Hopkins, to give this information out.
Yet, there was no punishment due to the fact that no one knew how Michael Gold got the information in the first place (Skloot). The final injustice Henrietta faced was the commercialization of HeLa. The original scientists, George Gey and his staff, who first cultured Henrietta’s cells, gave away vials of Hela to any one who asked for it with only the thought that it would help them with whatever they were trying to discover or solve (Sharpe). They never thought about selling Hela for money and becoming rich, but eventually someone did and the production of Hela skyrocketed.
Microbiological Associates was the first company to begin selling Henrietta’s cells for profit and by the time Henrietta’s family found out that her cells were still living they also learned that millions of dollars were being made off of selling them (Skloot). Some of Henrietta’s children wanted to sue businesses to receive a portion of the profits they were earning through the use of Hela cells (Zimmer). But they were just “largely ignored” because of the view that tissue not connected to a patient is no longer a part of that patient and their rights. Zimmer)
So while a great number of companies are making tons of money through Hela, Henrietta’s descendants do not receive any of it and continue with their life of working two jobs and living in rundown neighborhoods (Skloot). Many might wonder how some small vials of Hela could make so much money and why so many scientists wanted them. Well there are a great number of reasons and the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, mentions if not all of the reasons than the most important ones. The “largest public health initiative” Hela helped with was the development of the polio vaccine (Sharpe).
Henrietta’s tumor cells were “unusually susceptible” to the poliovirus and helped to confirm the Salk vaccine to be effective and lifesaving (Sharpe). Soon after that many saw HeLa as a “work horse” because it was healthy and strong, it was inexpensive, and it grew faster than any normal cell (Skloot). Though Henrietta’s cells were not normal cells, but rather cancerous cells they still behaved like a normal cell would by producing proteins, generating energy, and expressing genes, but even better than normal cells they were proven to be susceptible to infections (Skloot).
This meant they were the perfect tool for studying many things like bacteria, hormones, proteins, and most importantly, viruses (Skloot). By taking a Hela cell and exposing it to viruses like fowl pox, measles and mumps, scientists can study how each virus entered the cell, reproduced, and spread. This later lead to finding vaccines and the testing of these vaccines by using them on infected Hela cells to prove if they were effective or not.
Along with helping find vaccines, Henrietta’s cells also helped scientists understand cloning, the destruction of cells exposed to massive doses of radiation, and the consequences of human cells in the extreme conditions of “deep-sea diving or spaceflight” (Skloot). With all the good Henrietta’s cells have done they may seem perfect, but there is one flaw to them. In 1966 Stanley Gartler dropped the “HeLa Bomb,” which showed that “eighteen of the most commonly used” cell cultures all contained a rare genetic marker found in black Americans and also found in Hela (Skloot).
By showing this Gartler proved that Hela cells had contaminated numerous cell lines because of their ability to grow on almost anything like on a scientist’s hands, coats, shoes, a ventilation system, or even on dust particles that float in the air (Skloot). After scientists got over the shock of the strength of Hela and the millions of dollars just wasted on past research and cell lines, they began the use of working under “sterile hoods” and taking even greater procedures to not contaminate their work (Skloot).
Over the years Henrietta’s cells have helped with hundreds to thousands of scientific discoveries and understandings. Though some scientists believe the use of informed consent in any research to be a “complex game not worth playing,” there are still those who believe otherwise (Epstein). Those others see informed consent as a way to make the “patients feel comfortable” and the start to a “foundation of respect and trust” (Zimmer). Either way one cannot deny that Henrietta and her family were unethically treated by the medical community and deserved better, especially considering all of the good HeLa has done for the world.