The book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot describes the life long journey of Henrietta Lacks.
It talks about the way how HeLa cells changed the science history forever. HeLa cells have helped advance scientific research in endless ways but not many people in the world know about how and where the source of the cells was. Skloot in her book, includes the stories of how the cells were obtanied, how they were used in the research and the wonderful discoveries led by it.
Henrietta Lacks’ cells were obtained in a very unethical way as per the rules and regulations of today. Although there were hardly any ethics or rules for biospecimens at that time. Lacks discovered a lump on her left cervix and after having a vaginal bleeding, she rushed to the Johns Hopkins hospital which was the only hospital around that time in their area where black people were treated. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer so she had to be treated to remove the tumor.
Before her surgery, the surgeon removed some of the part of the tumor and gave it to Dr. George Gey (without the consent of Lacks) who was able to successfully grow Lacks cells in the lab (in vitro) which was also the first time that cells were ever cultured outside of the body. Henrietta died a few months later due to cancer but her cells did not.
The cells divided constantly and continuously as they were cancerous. Many people were interested to research on the cancerous cells so Dr. Gey sent out samples to scientists and researchers all over the world. No one would have guessed that the HeLa cells would have such an impact in the science world. Not only did the scientist use Henrietta’s cells without her consent but also convinced her family members falsely to donate blood so that they can learn more about HeLa cells. There were a number of legal, ethical and moral issues related to the Henrietta Lacks case. Neither Henrietta nor her family consented to provide the samples of Henrietta’s cancerous tissue and blood samples for research.
Also, John Hopkins university released the name and medical information to third parties without her or her family’s consent. Both of these things would violate the laws as of today on patients right of having an informed consent and privacy of medical and personal records. Henrietta Lacks cells had a huge impact in the science world and question the research ethics that were going on at that time.
The HeLa cells led to development of the polio vaccine which has saved millions of people of that disease till now. It accidently made the researchers in counting the number of chromosomes in HeLa cells which lead to the development of counting the chromosomes in human cell which was found out to be 23 pairs rather than which was known before to be 24. HeLa cells also led to the discovery of Human papilloma virus vaccine which has saved endless life until now. HeLa cells have been used in over 60,000 research articles CITATION Reb10 l 1033 (Skloot, 2010).
Without HeLa cells, there wouldn’t have been the invention of vaccines at that time or the research that cured certain cancers and many more. HeLa cells were obtained without the consent of Henrietta and also personal information was leaked to third parties by the Doctors. In today’s time there are a number of rules and regulations that are to be followed by the scientist to experiment on human specimen. I think that one should be given complete details about the experiment that is to be done on them or what would happen if any sample is collected. The story of the discovery of HeLa and the scientific achievements that followed were very interesting and very well written by Rebecca Skloot. The Frustration of the family and the lack of information given by the scientist to the family was absolutely wrong. The companies made millions in profit from the stolen HeLa cells while on the other hand Henrietta’s family did not even receive a penny and did not have proper healthcare facilities as they were poor.
The scientists did not even think for a while to obtain consent from the family or share the profits. The Lacks suffered a lot of injustice which shows us about the problem science had at that time. Thus, it can be concluded that biospecimens should be used in a proper ethical way and be respectful towards it. All things said, the cells actually did do make a great advancement in the medical world. Despite Henrietta’s story being full of legal and ethical issues, HeLa led science into a whole new level of its own and changing it for the better not only scientifically but also ethically, yet was sorrowful for Henrietta and her family that had gone through such pain. HeLa cells after all did a greater good in terms of scientific advancement, ethics and moral issues.
Reference: Skloot, R. (2010). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishers.