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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Ethical Issues of the Case

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From the 2nd century BC with the Hippocratic Oath to the present day with the dilemma of abortions, ethics and morals have always been at the forefront of discussion in the medical field, and one specific example would be the case of Henrietta Lacks and her undying cells. In the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Rebecca Skloot discusses the life of the woman Henrietta Lacks and how her cancer tissue had led to many medical advancements as well as the ethical dilemmas that arose from them. Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died from cervical cancer, but from that cancer came the first immortal human cell line, known as HeLa, and this led many to dispute whether the acquisition of the tissues was ethical as well as if the issues that followed justified whether taking the tissue was for “greater good” or if the ethical dilemma outweighs it. In this case, the “greater good”, which is the sacrifice of something to help everyone, does outweigh the ethical dilemmas as this immortal cell line has been the cause of both advances in the field of medicine which has benefited everyone, such as the eradication of polio and genome mapping, and advancing the field of medicine as well as creating a new one, virology. These advancements have improved the human condition, created new jobs, and set up a foundation for future generations to make the field easier to get into and excel in. The main argument against HeLa cells and its impact being for the greater good comes from the treatment of one woman and her family, Henrietta Lacks.

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Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins in 1951 to undergo treatment for her cervical cancer. At the time, TeLinde, the doctor who performed the surgery, had created a theory on preventing cervical cancer that, if correct, would save millions of women, but to confirm his theory, he needed samples. To accomplish this, TeLinde would take samples from patients without their knowledge and send it to George Gey to process. While this is ethically wrong to not get consent, taking the tissue did not adversely affect the patient and was not done with any malicious intent: “Wharton picked up a sharp knife and shaved two dime-sized pieces of tissue from Henrietta’s cervix: one from her tumor, and one from the healthy cervical tissue nearby.”(Skloot 33). On one hand, many would argue that the hospital blatantly violated her freedom and could have harmed her being, but on the other hand, this shows that getting the cells were not harmful to Henrietta as later she displayed no adverse effects because of it as well the doctors accounting for where they were extracted from. Many would parallel this situation with the unethical Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment where a large group of African-American men were observed to see the natural history of untreated syphilis while simultaneously being told they were receiving free health care from the United States government but only being supplied non-effective treatments to perpetuate their syphilis. Many would relate the way that they went about getting data with each other and how it was based on race, but Henrietta Lack’s situation was nowhere near as severe, as she was not hurt by the experiment and was never harmed by the doctors and was provided actual care: “Henrietta knew nothing about her cells growing in a laboratory. After leaving the hospital, she went back to life as usual.' (Skloot 42). This displays how her life was not altered in any way because of how the hospital's protocol. However, the ethical dilemmas that arose from HeLa are far outweighed by the benefits that came from it, with all of the lives that have been saved by these cells, and it overall is for the greater good.

George Gey was head of tissue culture research at Hopkins and was attempting to discover the first immortal human cell: a continuously dividing line of cells that all descend from one original cell. When he received Henrietta Lacks's tissue, change to the name HeLa, they expected nothing of it. They were quickly proven wrong as the cells started to divide uncontrollably which then opened up the door to easier and more consistent research and expanded the field. “The trouble was, at that point, the cells used in neutralization tests came from monkeys, which were killed in the process. This was a problem, not because of concern for animal welfare—which wasn’t the issue then that it is today—but because monkeys were expensive. Doing millions of neutralization tests using monkey cells would cost millions of dollars.” (Skloot 94)

This was important as it was one of the first steps that HeLa allowed to happen within the field of tissue culture. HeLa gave scientists around the world the ability to a constant supply of resources as HeLa cells also helped create the technique of freezing cells which allowed transport to anywhere in the world. This was only one of the dramatic improvements that the field would see. Another would be how the advent of HeLa expanded the field and gave an opportunity to many in the field to excel and find discoveries: “Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans…” (Skloot 97). This shows that the field grew rapidly and came to include people from all demographics all cultures who wanted to help people and it was all because of the introduction of HeLa cells. However, one of the most major attributes that HeLa cells provided would be the standardization of the field. Before the introduction of the cell, the field was, as put by the book “A bit of a mess.”

“Gey and his colleagues had been complaining that they wasted too much time just making medium and trying to keep the cells alive. But more than anything, they worried that since everyone was using different media ingredients, recipes, cells, and techniques, and few knew their peers’ methods, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate one another’s experiment.” (Skloot 98)

With these issues, the field advanced at a snail's pace and was dependent on individuals to make breakthroughs that limited what advancements that could be made. This made it so that those who succeed in the field had to start from scratch which would make the field stagnant after a while with no new discoveries. But with the advent of HeLa cells, it made all of these worries and problems obsolete as companies started to utilize HeLa technology and sell them allowing scientists to use the same cells, and grow in the same medium, use the same equipment. This would launch the fledgling field of Virology. These improvements started to bear fruit as soon after we would see many discoveries that would only benefit humanity.

The benefits from the HeLa cells managed to extend past the scientific community and into the general public. The advancements that were made in the field have enabled other contributions to the first. The first and most major contribution was the HeLa cells participation in the birth of the cure for Polio. “This discovery meant that HeLa was susceptible to poliovirus, which not all cells were, it would solve the mass-production problem and make it possible to test the vaccine without millions of monkey cells.” (Skloot 95). The cells turned out to be more susceptible than other cells which gave the scientists a reliable test subject and allowed for the cure of polio to be discovered. This discovery helped everyone around the world regardless of ethnicity or class as many wanted the disease gone. Another contribution was that HeLa cells allowed to solve a misconception about chromosomes counting, being that humans had 24 pairs of chromosomes. “In 1953, a geneticist in Texas accidentally mixed the wrong liquid with HeLa and a few other cells, and it turned out to be a fortunate mistake.” (Skloot 100). Following this discovery, two researchers from Spain and Sweden developed a technique for staining and counting chromosomes, demonstrating that human somatic cells have 23 pairs of chromosomes, not the previously believed 24. This has had important implications for medical diagnostics, as deviations from 23 chromosome pairs are associated with various genetic diseases, for example, trisomy 21 and Down Syndrome. Lastly, scientists used HeLa cells to determine how radiation can damage cells in one of the first experiments to study the impact of X-rays on human cell growth. These studies provide valuable information about how x-rays can have a negative effect on human health.

HeLa cells may have a gritty and controversial past but have overall helped many people. These cells were for the greater good and have been involved in many other ground-breaking advances in science and medicine, ranging from being the first cells to be successfully cloned, to the first human cells to be sent into space. HeLa cells are still widely used in labs today, making it likely that their contributions will continue to grow and accentuate their value in the scope of human advancement.  

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