Hela Cells and the Polio Vaccine

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Poliomyelitis, also known as Polio is a contagious viral illness that, in severe cases, destroys nerve cells in the spinal cord. This causes muscle to waste away and cause permanent paralysis, difficulty breathing and sometimes death. In most cases people who are affected with the virus do not get sick and aren’t aware they have it. Polio can be prevented with a vaccine. However, once someone is infected the condition can not be cured but treatment may help. Despite an effort to rid the world of the poliovirus, it continues to affect people in Asia and Africa (MFMER).

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In 1936, a polio epidemic swept through the Southern region of the United States, severely crippling children, both Black and White. In 1938, polio’s most famous victim, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to raise funding to specifically aid in the treatment and cure of polio. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was the first to create a HeLa factory. HeLa cells were revolutionary in the way they treated polio.

The HeLa cells were the first line of human cells to survive outside of the human body, and because of that, a breakthrough discovery for medical science. Because of the cells ability to regenerate every 24 hours they became a necessity for labs all around the world. HeLa cells being similar to human cells made them instrumental in the creation of the polio vaccine. Scientists were able to do unusual experiments, like the effect on human cells in zero gravity, or the impact of the intense heat and radiation of nuclear fission. HeLa cells were taken without consent from a woman named Hennrietta Lacks. However, there weren’t many laws against this at the time. The author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, writes, ‘Since the time when Henrietta walked through Hopkins’ doors, the field of biomedical ethics has been born and regulations on informed consent have come with it’. Dr. George Gey harvested Hennrietta’s cells from her tumors with the goal of curing cancer. This goal was never met. However, her cells were sold for $25 a vile and Gey made so much money off of her cells with no benefit to the family. “The overlay of race and poverty drowned out concern for Henrietta and allowed this to take place unnoticed. Rather than focusing on Henrietta Lacks as an individual with rights, the attention turned to Dr. Gey and the remarkable nature of HeLa cell line.

Overall HeLa cells have made a huge difference in how we research, make vaccines, and treat all kinds of illnesses. HeLa cells have made countless contributions to science over the past sixty years. The Lacks family serve as a catalyst for the policies that are in place today to protect the patients. These policies are in place to build trust with research participants. Henrietta Lacks and her HeLa cells have advanced science/medicine by revolutionizing the way we take responsibility to protect tissue donors rights.

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