Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Woman Behind HeLa

Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in the 1950s. During the course of her treatments at John Hopkins a sample of her tumor was taken and grown in culture. At the time Dr. Gey was doing research at John Hopkins with the hopes of creating the first immortal cell line. Most cultured cells would die out after a short period of time, limiting their usefulness. Henrietta's did not. Her cancer cells gave birth to the first immortal cell line known as HeLa.

HeLa cells are currently used in research labs across the globe and their use has allowed for many significant scientific discoveries. Many companies got started producing HeLa cells, and vials of cells continue to be sold today.  However Henrietta received nothing, not even basic acknowledgement. Her family lived on unable to afford even basic health care and completely unaware the HeLa existed, or was in fact Henrietta's cells. Henrietta finally received full acknowledgment when her story was told in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. The creation of HeLa and it's use in the scientific community raised many questions about issues such as consent, biological ownership, and many others. Her story functions as a reminder that, especially as scientists and researchers, we have a responsibility to understand and take into account the ethical implications of our actions. If you have a chance I highly recommend reading the book, it is very well written and thought provoking.

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown, 2010. Print.

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