The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the Ethical Issues of John Moore's Case

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With every person in the world having around thirty to forty trillion cells (Hewings-Martin). How is it that these two people, from seemingly different backgrounds, collectively contribute to one of the largest ethical debates in medical history. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Henrietta Lacks was a young, African American, mother of five, whose life was forever changed in 1951. Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer which would ultimately take her life at the age of thirty-one. John Moore was a young, white surveyor on the Alaskin Pipeline, who was diagnosed in 1976 with the hairy-cell leukemia. These two stories of Henrietta Lacks and John Moore are astronomically different. Growing up in different times, their stories seemingly never crossed. However, the connection that is drawn between Mrs. Lacks and Mr. Moore is greater than any. Both had their cells taken and used without their knowledge to create medical history.

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The importance of the discovery of these two cells is undeniable, both cells created lasting impacts that changed the face of medicine. HeLa, which is derived from the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last name, was one of the most influential discoveries in medical history. Henrietta’s cells were the “big break” every scientist in the world was looking for. Her cells were immortal, and doctors stated that, “Henrietta’s cells weren’t merely surviving, they were growing with mythological intensity” (Skloot 40). Her cells were creating history as the first cells to grow indefinitely. Twenty years later, Mo, derived from John Moore’s first two letters of his last name, excited researchers just like HeLa cells did. David Golde, a prominent cancer researcher at UCLA, was Moore’s doctor. Once he discovered the significance of the cells, Golde made sure to patent them. The contribution that these two cells had on the medical field was monumental. HeLa cells have contributed to almost every medical advancement that we have today. Her cells were poked, prodded, injected and dissected to help create a better understanding of the human body. Benjamin Butanis, a spokesperson for Johns Hopkins Hospital, stated, “ Over the past several decades, this cell line has contributed to many medical breakthroughs, from research on the effects of zero gravity in outer space and the development of the polio vaccine, to the study of leukemia, the AIDS virus and cancer worldwide”. 

Her cells were the medical miracle that helped so many discover a diagnosis and cure for debilitating diseases. Mo, just like HeLa, contributed to medical history. Skloot stated, “Moore’s cells produced rare proteins that pharmaceutical companies could use to treat infections and cancer. They also carried a rare virus called HTLV, a distant cousin of the HIV virus, which researchers hoped to create a vaccine that could stop the AIDS epidemic” (202). His cells, similar to what HeLa was trying to accomplish in the 1950s, impacted the study of different diseases that were still unknown. HeLa and Mo cell chains were the new toy that every child wanted. Scientists from far and wide placed their orders and called offices just to get their hands on these immortal cells. Having immortal cells allowed scientists to do the unthinkable. Skloot wrote,“Henrietta's cells were so precious because they allowed scientists to perform experiments that would have been impossible with a living human. They cut HeLa cells apart and exposed them to endless toxins, radiation, and infections” (58). Scientists had an endless supply of HeLa cells, no matter what happened to the cells scientists and researchers always had more to turn back on. The discovery of these immortal cell chains was something the world never believed would happen. Both of the cells contained something special, and scientists and doctors took advantage of that.

HeLa and Mo were both created after doctors took a tiny sample of their bodies without their knowledge. The major question that stood with both of these cases, was if the tissues were taken ethically and with the patient’s consent. Henrietta’s case took place at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In 1951, Henrietta entered the hospital for some testing that would later prove her worst nightmare, cervical cancer. When Henrietta arrived for her first treatment, she was given a consent form to sign. The form stated, “I hereby give consent to the staff of The Johns Hopkins Hospital to perform an operative procedures and under any anaesthetic either local or general that they may deem necessary in the proper surgical care and treatment of: Henrietta Lacks” (31). Henrietta signed the consent form. Under this form, it gave Hopkins the right to perform operative procedures and provide anaesthetic, but it did not give doctors permission to take her cells and use them without Henrietta’s knowledge. Moore’s story was similar, but he was diagnosed with hairy-cell leukemia in 1976. 

John was referred by his local doctor to see David Golde, a renounced cancer researcher. Moore was given a consent form to sign during his first visit with Golde. Moore’s form stated, “Dispose of any severed tissue or member by cremation” (199). His form, like Henrietta’s, gave the doctors the right to perform procedures that they thought were necessary, but it didn’t allow doctors to take Moore’s cells and use them. Unlike Henrietta’s case, John Moore was bartered by his doctors to sign another form. The other form Moore was given after years of treatment stated, “I (do, do not) voluntarily grant to the University of California all rights I, or my heirs, may have in any cell line or any other potential product which might be developed from the blood and/or bone marrow obtained from me” (200). Moore declined to sign this form. Moore started to realize what the doctors were doing, and he decided that it was time to fight. There were no laws requiring informed consent for tissue research, but the case of Moore vs Golde and UCLA brought to light the unethical issues of consent. Moore took his case to court, suing over the deception he received and the use of his body without consent. Although his case was thrown out because of the lack of significant evidence, ironically, the judge used HeLa cells in his argument. The judge stated, “the fact that no one had sued over the growth or ownership of the HeLa cell line, he said, illustrated that patients didn’t mind when doctors took their cells and turned them into commercial products” (204). The evidence that the judge used was untrue. Henrietta’s family wanted to sue for the rights of HeLa cells, but they didn’t have the means to do so. Moore had the means, but the laws of consent never changed. The only thing that changed was the issue of consent was brought to light. The idea of consent has always been an issue. From Henrietta’s case in the 1950s, to Moore’s case in the 1980s, consent has been the main issue of the medical industry.

With over a twenty year difference between the two cases, many ways in which these cases were handled have drastically changed. Yet, the ideas of consent, medical ethics, and healthcare issues are still present. Henrietta’s treatment in the 1950s was full of medical issues. In this era gender, race, and social status changed the course of treatment drastically. Throughout the book, Johns Hopkins Hospital was addimat that the course of treatment between blacks and whites, women and men, or rich and poor was the same. That proved to be false. During this time, Johns Hopkins Hospital was the only place that provided treatment no matter their status, but the treatment was definitely not the same. Doctors at Johns Hopkins took advantage of the uneducated patients. In one incident, Henrietta was misinformed about the treatment causing her to become infertile. Another issue that arose this time was the understanding of diseases. During this time, “ doctors around the country were involved in a heated nationwide debate over what qualified as cervical cancer, and how best to treat it” (27). This is evident that the treatment of many during this time was hindered and unknown in ways to treat and prevent these diseases. Henrietta’s treatment was faulty in many ways, because of her gender, race and social status. Moore’s treatment in the 1970s issues was immensely different that Henrietta’s. His race, gender, and social status caused him to receive top of the line care. His treatment from the doctors was something no one else received. Skloot revealed, “ Golde [Moore’s Doctor] offered to pay for the plane tickets and put him up in style at the Beverly Wilshire '' (200). The only reason Moore received this treatment was because of the importance of his cells. Moore was further educated than Henrietta, which allowed him to have a better understanding of the disease itself. He understood that his doctors were taking control of him. Moore was also educated enough to stand up for his rights, and “in 1984, Moore sued Golde and UCLA for deceiving him and using his body in research without consent; he also claimed property rights over his tissues and sued Golde for stealing them. With that, he became the first person to legally stake a claim to his own tissue and sue for profits and damager” (203). His case was brought to light because of his race and gender. Moore had the resources to go against the doctors. His social status allowed him to receive publicity that Henrietta didn’t receive. Time, gender, and ethnic backgrounds changed the ways of treatment for many. In over a twenty year difference, these concepts controlled the importance of these cases.

The cells of Henrietta Lacks and John Moore proved to be the driving force of medical advances, but they also brought to light the issues of informed consent. There is no doubt that HeLa and Mo have changed medical research for the better, yet the way these cells were taken has always been questioned. In these different time periods, race, gender, and social status played important roles in Henrietta’s and Moore’s treatment and understanding of the diseases. If it wasn’t for Moore’s willingness to go against the doctors and researchers to obtain rights, consent would still be an issue. Skloot voiced the importance of Henrietta’s and Moore’s cells throughout the book, but she also raised awareness for the “ethical and legal questions that “have not been answered”(327). Skloot led a revolution to answer the unknown questions revolved around ethics and consent. It is because of her curiosity that a crucial change in the medical industry was ignited.  

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