HeLa Cells – Revolutionary Medical Advances

Reflective Assignment #1

HeLa cells have led to the most revolutionary medical advances in society today, they have also led to some of the greatest controversies. This all began with a woman named Henrietta Lacks. A wife, a mother, and a cousin, Henrietta spent her whole life helping others until she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. During one of her treatments, a sample of tissue from Henrietta cervix was taken. With her sample, George Gey produced the first immortal human cells (Skloot 41). These cells would spread all over the world to different labs and contribution to medical research. The only problem: Henrietta nor any of her family members were asked or informed about the sample that had been taken from Henrietta Lacks.

Cancer is a disease of malfunctioning cells that cause a proliferation resulting in tumors. Carcinomas are one of the most common forms of cancer and they are derived from epithelial tissues found in the linings of most organs. Epithelial cells line the cervix, meaning cervical cancer can be a squamous cell carcinoma or an adenocarcinoma. Henrietta’s biopsy results showed she had, “Epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, Stage 1” (Skloot 27). It was later discovered that HeLa cells contain the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a DNA virus that integrates its viral genome into the host cell inducing multiple changes that cause rapid proliferation resulting in a tumor. In addition, the, “HPV genome inserted itself near the c-myc proto-oncogene in Henrietta’s genome” (Faussadier). It was these circumstances that allowed George Gey to create the first immortal cell line.

One of the major medical innovations that benefited from HeLa cells is the polio vaccine. Soon after Henrietta Lacks died, Jonas Salk declared he had created the polio vaccine, but he needed to test it on a larger scale before being administering it to children. The Rhesus monkey cells were first used in these tests, but a large-scale quantity of these cells would cause millions of dollars (Turner). HeLa cells were found to be the best alternative candidate because their anchorage-independence allowed them to grow rapidly in a cultured medium without any assistance. HeLa cells were also found to be susceptible to poliovirus, so they were deemed to be perfect candidates. With HeLa cells, a large-scale testing began and would lead to the creation of the polio vaccine. The polio vaccine would prevent children from contracting the virus and would put an end to the polio epidemic of 1952.

What is informed consent? In research, informed consent is when a person knows, “if and how their tissues are being used in research” (Nisbet and Fahy). Henrietta Lacks was not informed that her cells would be used for research, and she never gave her consent for researchers to use them. Despite the numerous contribution’s HeLa cells have made to medicine, the process in which her cells were obtained is unnerving. The “current U.S. regulatory standards require investigators to obtain individual’s consent [when] intended to use residual clinical tissue for research” (Truog). Henrietta lived during the time of Jim Crow laws and segregation. The U.S. regulatory standards were practically nonexistent and black people were subjected to studies without being informed of the depth of the study or giving consent. An example of this is a study conducted by Chester Southam, where he injected cancer into patients without their informed consent. He conducted his study in Ohio prison and injected cancer into inmates who cooperated without resistance. Some of the inmates believed that the results of study would help ease the injustices they had caused to society. Despite their voluntary cooperation, the inmates were in a vulnerable position and were unable to give informed consent. Southam claimed his research was necessary, and many researchers testified on his behalf arguing, “it was unnecessary to disclose all information to research subjects of get consent in all cases” (Skloot, page 134). They argued if they disclosed all the information people wouldn’t be as obliged to volunteer for research projects, and they wouldn’t have made the advancement thus far. Another study, the Manhattan Project, conducted human radiation experiments where random patients were injected with radioactive elements such as uranium and plutonium without their consent (Stone). The experiment had no benefit to the patient or the medical community and caused more harm than good. After the experiment was revealed, the government compensated the families and enforce stricture laws on human subject research. During the time Henrietta lived in, researchers took advantage of the vulnerable population who trusted doctors would provide the utmost care to them. Not every study provided benefits, meaning the means cannot justify the ends.

Without a doubt, the researchers in Henrietta Lack’s time took advantage of vulnerable populations who could not give their consent or remained uninformed. Some of these studies did not bring any medical contributions that would benefit future generations. Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black woman who was in a vulnerable position and should not have been taken advantage of the time when Gey took her cells. Without HeLa, today’s society would be completely different, and more people would have been harmed without the vaccines HeLa contributed to. The past cannot be changed, but it is necessary to reflect and continue to tell Henrietta Lacks story so society can learn and protect the welfare of the vulnerable population.

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