To understand the importance of Henrietta Lacks' cells one must first understand the capability of these cells. A HeLa cell is an immortal cancerous cell line. It is the oldest immortal cell line known to mankind and allowed scientists to find cures for diseases such as polio. The HeLa cell allowed scientists to repeat experiments with the same cell line worldwide. This alone was a feat for scientific research. In addition, HeLa allowed scientists to manipulate and expend large amounts of cells without having to pay large sums of money to buy new cells. Although they were first discovered in 1951, HeLa cells are still the most commonly used human cell line.
Henrietta and David Lacks.
Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in early 1951. After her first visit to the hospital, Henrietta returned to multiple appointments until she was admitted to the hospital. Her cancer began in her cervix, but eventually metastasized and spread throughout her entire body. The tumors spread at such a fast rate that the radiation treatments had no affect. About eight months after her initial diagnose, Henrietta Lacks died on October 4, 1951. However, during her treatments, doctors cut off pieces of the cancer in her cervix for research. This sliver of tissue revolutionized the science and medical world when George Gey discovered its immortality.
George Gey; known for propagating the HeLa cell.
After Henrietta's death, doctors sent her cells worldwide, commercialized her cells into a business, and used her cells for multiple experiments. As a result of Gey’s initial spur to study the immortal cells, HeLa was in high demand by scientists worldwide. Thus, HeLa was put into mass production. With the cells being sent worldwide, a study for cures and discoveries began. Studies currently occur on HeLa cells as they are durable and can be easily replaced.
Alexis Carrel was the first man to start the rave of "immortal cells". It began when he caused a chicken heart cells to continue to live outside of the chicken's body. Then, after gaining the media's attention, Carrel continued to claim how the cells would revolutionize science and medicine. However, this never happened. In addition, people later uncovered that Carrel had been most likely lying the entire time and that the cells had never actually lived for all those years.
Chester Southam and one of his cancer subjects.
In 1954, Chester Southam began a study of how the human body reacts to cancer cells. He hoped to find a way to create a cancer vaccine and to find undiagnosed cases of cancer in the process. At first, Southam was praised when he reported the findings he had found testing on prisoner subjects, but when he attempted to experiment on hospital patients there was a revolt from three doctors. This act of injecting cancer into patients for medical research stirred the doctors into resignation. The morality behind using patients without consent for research caused the hospital to be sued.
In 1966 at a cell culturing conference, Stanley Gartler dropped "the HeLa Bomb." He proposed that HeLa had contaminated the majority of all the cell cultures that the scientists had been working with. This statement did not go well with the scientists as this meant that millions of dollars spent on experiments would be worthless because all the cell cultures had been contaminated. On a more positive note, this eventually caused researchers to sterilize experiments in order to find accurate readings.
The Mo Line patent correction form.
In 1984, John Moore sued his doctor for taking a sample of his spleen and starting a cell line. After removing his cancer-filled spleen, Moore's doctor made him return for follow-up exams for about seven years. Moore eventually discovered that his doctor, Golde, had been bringing him back to create a cell line named "Mo". Moore sued Golde for stealing his cells and created an international panic for researchers, because it was normal to study tissue taken from patients. His attempt to regain ownership of his cells led the way to the legal makings of informed consent.
Various attempts have been made in order to let the world know of the life of Henrietta Lacks. Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter, could have spoken at a conference in honor of Henrietta created by the National Foundation for Cancer Research. This, however, never happened as the conference was shut down when the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were struck. This led to Deborah having a stroke from the stress of everything relating to her mother.
Patient in U.S. hospital ward circa 1950's.
"Like many doctors of his era, TeLinde often used patients from the public wards for research, usually without their knowledge. Many scientists believed that since patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment. (30)"
This passage displays what doctor-patient relationships were like in the 1950's and how a lack of information led to informed consent laws. The usage of Henrietta's cells, Southam's patients, and Moore's cells are all historically important as they changed the medical society by causing the formation of laws that prevent patients from any unawareness. As a result of the creation of laws, the events taken place for research become morally wrong. Henrietta's story therefor becomes more important as the process in creating a blessing also involved immoral acts. The moral issue in lack of consent is the loss of ability for the patient to make a clear judgment on what needs to be done with their body. This also raises the question to whether the profit of research is greater than the choices made by the patient.
_________________________________________________________________Henrietta Lacks's cells changed the world positively. Her story, however, reveals the immortality of society. Since Henrietta's life is now known worldwide, there should be a gratefulness for current society as patients are informed on what happens to them. The HeLa cells are still changing the medical world and we have one person to thank for that; Henrietta Lacks.