How a Family was Robbed of Their Mother and Millions: The History of HeLa Cells

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

By: Vaidehi Kaushal

(Photo Credit: history.com)

HeLa cells are the backbone of modern medicine, being cited in over 110,000 scientific articles and giving rise to major medical treatments, such as the polio vaccine, cancer treatments, in vitro fertilization, and more. Although these cells have saved many lives, the origins of this discovery began with discrimination, lack of consent, and the breaking of modern bioethical codes.


This all began at the globally esteemed institute of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore Maryland. During the 1940s, throughout the United States and especially in Baltimore, it was commonplace to know that if one was African American, the availability of treatment was limited, and a decline in the quality of patient etiquette, as well as a nonchalant attitude towards bioethics, was expected. Furthermore, many in the African American community feared going to the hospitals, for they had witnessed that many who went in for treatment never came back out their doors. Against the backdrop of medical inequity, Henrietta Lacks, a Baltimore resident, was diagnosed with cervical cancer at a young age, and due to limited healthcare options, decided to receive treatment at Johns Hopkins. During her treatment, she underwent a tumor extraction. After her procedure, some of her cells were taken to be tested, without her knowledge or consent.


It was shown in lab that they were the first set of patient cells that were miraculously able to divide, growing easily and abundantly. After this revolutionary discovery, the doctor and researcher, Dr. George Otto Gey, decided to create a company that would be able to reproduce these cells for further scientific research. This company decided to conceal how they obtained these cells and who they were obtained from by creating a false story. However, the discovery of these cells, by then known as the HeLa cells (named for the first letters of Henrietta Lacks' name), had given rise to a multimillion-dollar industry. Although Henrietta died of cervical cancer at the age of 31, her cells have lived on for generations, and have thus been called the 'immortal' cells.


Why is her story important?


Many African Americans at that time were poorly treated and victims of unethical medical experimentation as they were given various drugs and diseases without their consent, underwent unnecessary treatments, were unable to access their medical records, and subject to other atrocities, simply because of the color of the skin. Some of Mrs. Lacks’ children also were poached by other doctors at Johns Hopkins, and without their knowledge, had their blood tested and used for other experiments. Her children never received one cent from this company, a corporation that was created on the foundation of their mother's stolen cells, and they also barely received information about her medical treatment. Furthermore, Henrietta's descendants struggled with chronic health conditions, and were in significant debt due to their diagnoses. They, too, had become victims of an industry that had exploited their mother and community, and had received no compensation, financial or otherwise. Even 60 years later, sometimes not all current bioethical regulations are upheld and one’s color of their skin, unfortunately, is a significant determent of their access or denial of quality healthcare.


New Initiatives:


In the wake of this tragedy, her children have brought awareness to this bioethical travesty and this has brought forth new biomedical regulations that doctors and researchers are bound to uphold. In 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) worked with the Lacks family to facilitate better relations and obtain consent to use the HeLa cells' genetic data. Although this discrimination should have not occurred in the first place, the Henrietta Lacks Foundation works to help those families who have contributed to science without their consent, and to help minorities with medical assistance.


To find out more about Henrietta Lacks and also her daughter’s experience, please read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Also, to learn more about the impact of this on the scientific community, read more about the NIH's agreement with the Lacks family and the Henrietta Lacks Foundation. Additionally, there is a recent movie called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that one can view for more information.


References:

  • (n.d.). Retrieved July 15, 2020, from http://henriettalacksfoundation.org/

  • Butanis, B. (2017, April 11). The Importance of HeLa Cells: Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henriettalacks/importance-of-hela-cells.html

  • HeLa Cells: A Lasting Contribution to Biomedical Research. (n.d.). Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://osp.od.nih.gov/scientific-sharing/hela-cells-landing/

  • NIH, Lacks family reach understanding to share genomic data of HeLa cells. (2015, September 15). Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-lacks-family-reach-understanding-share-genomic-data-hela-cells


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