Cancer has been one of the most devastating ailments in the recent

times. Indeed, statistics have shown that cancer is the second largest
killer after malaria. A 2008 study showed that about 12.7 million new
cases of cancer were diagnosed in the entire world, with female breast,
lung, stomach and colorectal cancers being the most commonly diagnosed
forms of cancers as they accounted for over 40% of all cases. On the
same note, it is estimated that the disease causes more than 7 million
deaths every year, with the figures continuing to rise. Needless to say,
the ailment has claimed the lives of numerous people, both famous and
nondescript. It is worth noting that extensive research has continually
been done since time immemorial with an aim of having a comprehensive
knowledge of the intricacies pertaining to cancer, its causes, symptoms,
and especially, how it can be cured. While enormous discoveries have
been made in this regard, one of the most fundamental discoveries in the
history of cancer remains the HeLa cells. These cells are named after a
woman called Henrietta Lacks, and are the basis of the book “The
Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is a skillfully crafted
investigation pertaining to a social wrong done in the medical field, as
well as the resultant medical and scientific miracles. It takes the
readers through the exceptional journey from the Johns Hopkins
Hospital’s colored wards of the 1950’s to the white laboratories
that have freezers full of HeLa Csells. It chronicles the journey from
the small town of Clover, Virginia, where Henrietta Lacks used to live,
to East Baltimore, where her kids and their kids currently live and
fight with the legacy that her cells left. Indeed, it makes for a
riveting story that details the collision between race, medicine and
ethics, as well as a daughter that has numerous questions pertaining to
the mother that she knew little about. Essentially, the story is
connected to the dark history pertaining to the use of African Americans
in experiments, the start of bioethics, as well as the legal battles
pertaining to whether individuals have control over the materials that
make them.
On 29th of January 1951, Henrietta Lacks was taken to Hopkins, which
was the only key hospital close to their homes that could treat black
patients. Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer and specifically the
“Epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, Stage I”. Henrietta had
developed the cervical cancer known as carcinoma, which develops from
epithelial cells covering and protecting the cervix’s surface. At this
time, doctors in the institution were participating in a nationwide
debate pertaining to the making of cervical cancer and the best
technique for treating it. It was generally believed that the
noninvasive type of cervical carcinomas were not fatal, in which case
they mainly concentrated on treating the invasive type. However, one of
the top cervical cancer experts Dr. Richard TeLinde disagreed with the
notion and opined that the noninvasive type was simply an early stage of
the invasive type. TeLinde had the uncanny history of using patients for
research without their knowledge or consent. He had determined that 62%
of women who had invasive cancer had initially been diagnosed with the
noninvasive types. He contacted George Gey, who was Hopkins’ head of
research on tissue culture in an effort to compare living samples
derived from normal cervical cancer, and living samples from the
invasive and noninvasive carcinoma. Gey had been striving to grow the
first immortal human cells. In this case, Gey gladly tried to grow
living samples from a supply of cervical cancer tissue that TeLinde
offered him. It is worth noting that TeLinde had been collecting the
tissues from all women that had cervical cancer including Henrietta
Lacks. Lacks was, apparently treated successfully dr. Lawrence Wharton,
who was a surgeon at Hopkins. Dr Wharton, however, collected samples
samples of her healthy and cancerous cervical tissues and gave them to
Dr. Gey, who successfully developed a culture of Henrietta’s cancerous
cells. As the author notes, “Henrietta’s cells weren’t merely
surviving, they were growing with mythological intensity” (Scloot 13).
Unfortunately, Lacks died the same year at the age of 31. Following her
death, doctors started planning an immense operation that would generate
trillions of HeLa cells every week.
It is worth noting that HeLa cells have been used in the treatment of
numerous ailments. Indeed, HeLa Cells have been crucial in the
development of polio vaccine, uncovering of the varied hidden aspects of
cancer, viruses, as well as the effects of atom bombs. In addition, it
led in crucial advances in fields such as gene mapping, cloning, and
in-vitro fertilization, as well as the treatment of influenza, herpes,
leukemia, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and hemophilia among others. The
difference between Lack’s cells and those of others is that her cells
had the capacity to live, as well as replicate outside the body. This
essentially explains why just about any lab that deals with cell culture
would have billions of the HeLa cells. The cells only need to be
provided with the nutrients necessary for survival, after which they
would apparently live and replicate forever. Testament to this is the
fact that they have done this for the last 60 years since the first
culture was obtained.
While this may be seen as a scientific breakthrough, the issue has
raised numerous ethical issues. This is especially considering that
Henrietta Lacks was not informed about the use of her cells in
replication or even have her consent sought. Indeed, information
pertaining to this was released 2 decades later. Neither her, nor her
family had given consent to the use of such cells or even the release of
such information to the public. In fact, the family came to know about
it when companies started approaching them asking them for samples of
their cells (Lodish 34). This essentially introduces a new dimension to
the discussion, especially with regard to patient consent.
While the issues raised and the actions of the doctors at that time can
only be termed as despicable, it is worth noting that there has been a
paradigm shift in the laws governing medical research since the 1950s to
the current times. Scholars have noted that, in that era, it was common
for doctors and surgeons to obtain cells from their patients and use
them in research and experiments without informing and seeking the
permission of the patients or even their families (Lodish 45). The
incident took place a long time prior to the adoption of ethical
guidelines and regulations pertaining to biomedical research that
currently requires researchers to get a voluntary, informed consent from
their subjects or patients prior to the use of any of their information
or cells in carrying out biomedical experiments (Lodish 45).
This, however, does not negate the irony of the fact that Henrietta`s
kids were living a life of poverty in Baltimore, whereas their
mother’s cells made up the first biological materials ever sold and
bought and which played an immense role in assisting the launching of a
multi-billion-dollar industry. Indeed, Henrietta`s family has largely
been living a life of poverty with a large number of them being unable
to afford even health insurance (Miller et al 34). In fact, one of
Henrietta`s sons was homeless and lived in Baltimore`s streets.
This book comes with fundamental lessons to both the scientists and
even people outside the labs. For scientists, the most fundamental less
revolves around the fact that behind every biological sample that they
use in the labs is a human being. Indeed, a large part of science is
highly dependent on the use of human biological tissue in one way or the
other. Unfortunately, scientists often see these cells as just some
inanimate tools or instruments that are always in their labs (Miller et
al 34). However, the individuals from whom these samples were derived
had their own feelings and thoughts pertaining to the things that should
happen to their tissues. Unfortunately, their thoughts and feelings are
not considered a crucial variable when making such decisions. On the
same note, it would be inaccurate to hold the story of the HeLa cells
and the things that Henrietta went through as an illustration of a
racist white scientist that was doing malicious things to a black woman.
Indeed, as much as Hopkins was the key hospital that could treat black
people, it is worth noting that other races were also treated in the
same hospitals. What happened to her could also have happened to other
women of other races, with the only difference being that her cells
worked while the others did not (Miller et al 36). In any case, the
surgeons and doctors did not violate any laws pertaining to privacy and
informed consent as none existed at the time. On the same note, tissue
culture is not bad at all especially considering the enormous proportion
of medicine today that is dependent on tissue culture. Indeed, the
demand for the cells will only rise in the future rather than go down.
Rather than taking this as a cue for outlining the things that should
not happen, it would be imperative that this comes as a wakeup call to
determine the best way that tissue culture can occur in a way that would
not leave anyone out.
In conclusion, the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”
traces the life of a poor black woman, whose cells were the first ones
to be successfully used in tissue culture. Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed
with cervical cancer in January 1951 and died in October the same year.
However, some tissue of her healthy and cancerous cervix were taken
without her knowledge or consent and used in experimentation. It is
worth noting that at that time, there were no rules pertaining to
patient confidentiality and informed consent, in which case the doctors
cannot be said to have acted illegally. However, it is ironical that her
children have been living in poverty whereas her cells were the
foundation of a multi-billion industry. This, nevertheless, should not
be used as an illustration of a white racist doctor who took advantage
of a black woman. It is imperative that doctors acknowledge that the
cells they use were derived from people who have their feelings and
thoughts regarding what happens to their tissue.
Works cited
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown
Publishers, 2010. Print
Lodish, Harvey F. Molecular Cell Biology. New York: Freeman, 2012.
Print.
Miller, Tina., Birch, Maxine., Mauthner, Melanie and Jessop, Julie.
Ethics in Qualitative Research. New York: SAGE, Sep 13, 2012. Print

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