Long Live HeLa Cells

Last class we discussed HeLa cells. For those who are wondering what HeLa cells are, they are cells that were obtained from a woman named Henrietta Lacks, who suffered from cervical cancer. The name HeLa was derived from her name (taking the first two letters from her first and last name). These cells were taking from her during a trip to the emergency room after experiencing abnormal bleeding after birthing her fifth child. A doctor removed tissue samples while Lacks was being treated for her condition and sent them to Dr. George Gey, who was currently working on producing human cells in a laboratory setting to help rid the world of cancer. Before Lacks, the cancerous cells Dr. Gey grew in petri dishes always seemed to die within a few days, but Lacks’s cells were special, they didn’t die. HeLa cells grew and divided infinitely. HeLa cells helped with testing of the polio vaccine, have been sent to space to see what effect the space environment has on cells and tissues, and was also used in experiments at nuclear testing sights to see the effects of radiation on human cells. It is amazing how powerful and “immortal” HeLa cells are.

What amazes me is how HeLa cells contaminated other cultures just from traveling on dust particles, and the fact these cells have been “alive” for over 60+ years. Although this fascinates me, I have an issue when it comes to the ethical side of the story. The cells were taken from Lacks without her consent, and not once was she recognized for her contribution to these medical breakthroughs. What really touched me was how her family knew nothing about her cells, and was never really given an explanation on how the cells were “alive.”

During the class discussion, there were a lot of mixed emotions about HeLa cells. Some agreed the cells contributed so much to medical research and have lead to advancements in modern medicine, but others feel there was a line that was crossed and using these cells without content was ethically and morally wrong. This whole topic has made me wonder several things. Has anyone ever had a biopsy done or tonsils taken out? Maybe you got your appendix taken out? Have you ever wondered what medical researchers are doing with these things or if you’ve contributed to a medical breakthrough?

Yes, if I gave my CONSENT to use my body, or anything from my body, for medical research, I would be glad I could contribute to help society in some way. Personally, I feel like if everything was explained to Lacks and her family, like if they knew their mother’s soul could rest peacefully and she would not feel any pain, they would of given their consent as well. But the way the situation was handled was definitely wrong. Listening to audio (http://www.radiolab.org/story/91716-henriettas-tumor/) to prepare for class really brought up the emotions of how inconsiderate the researchers were to the family. Lacking the proper explanation, Lacks’s family thought she was alive suffering from all the experiments and had clones of her walking around. Also, from what I’ve concluded, the family would still be clueless about the cells to this day if researchers didn’t need the family’s DNA to map Lacks’s genes.


1 Comment

  1. I agree with you that it was very unethical to take the cells from Henrietta’s body without her permission. Although this proved to be a modern miracle in scientific research, it still should not have been done. That is why they make you say whether you want to be an organ donor when you get your driver’s license. If she was not an organ donor, that meant that they did not have permission to use any biological tissue from her body.

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