Deceased Woman’s Cells Pave Way for Greater Knowledge

Liz Fe Lifestyle

In the 1950s, many people in the US were suffering from cancer. But one woman, Henrietta Lacks, who was battling cervical cancer, did not realize just how important she would be after her inevitable battle with cancer came to a close. Lacks died from cervical cancer on October 4th, 1951, at the age of 31. But something happened before her death that ended up creating an entirely new world within the medical field: before she died, Lacks’ cancer cells were taken without her knowledge in the form of a tissue sample. The cells within this sample, referred to as HeLa cells, have reproduced infinitely since the day she died - and believe it or not, these cells ended up becoming a cornerstone of modern medicine, including but not limited to the development of the polio vaccine, genetic mapping, cancer research and even the COVID-19 vaccines.

Although this sounds like an inspirational story on paper, Lacks was exploited for these cells - and died never knowing the hospital treating her possessed this sample. Lacks, a black woman, lived during a time when segregation was still legal within the United States. Even if segregation is no longer legal in most countries, discrimination remains widespread within the US. The resurgence of BLM and the issue of police brutality were violently brought to headlines after the death of several black people, including George Floyd, were addressed in full. Controversy, protests and even riots broke out, violently shaking a foundation that had already been unstable. The chief of the World Health Organization, or WHO, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, acknowledged that what had happened to Lacks was morally wrong, even if it created an advent for modern medicine. Tedros added that because these discoveries were not being shared equally across the globe, it was “perpetuating even more injustice” than was ever needed. This recognition came nearly a decade after The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was published, a book talking about discrimination in heathcare Black Americans faced, the live-saving innovations made possible by Lacks’ cells and her family’s fight in the world of law over their unauthorized use. The HeLa cells were used in studies to develop HPV vaccines, according to Tedros, which could eliminate the cancer that took Lacks’ life.

"Many people have benefited from those cells. Fortunes have been made. Science has advanced. Nobel Prizes have been won, and most importantly, many lives have been saved," Tedros said. "No doubt Henrietta would have been pleased that her suffering has saved others. But the end doesn't justify the means,” Tedros said in a statement this Wednesday. WHO stated that as of last year, less than 25% of the world's low-income countries and fewer than 30% of lower-middle-income countries had access to HPV vaccines through national immunization programs, compared to over 85% of high-income countries. More than 50 million metric tons of HeLa cells have been distributed across the world, and more than 75,000 studies have utilized these cells for all kinds of medical research. No doubt, Lacks’ cells have been at the forefront of an entirely new medical era. But that still does not justify the pain and hurt her family has been feeling for her cells’ use without her consent. So it’s all the more important to remember that her life was just as important as her cells. Last week, Lacks’ estate sued a biotechnology company, accusing the company of selling cells that doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took from her without her knowledge or consent. Their fight for justice and recognition continues. Lacks’ life has made an incredible contribution and there is no doubt she would be happy knowing this. But it continues to raise moral and ethical dilemmas that will no doubt linger long after HeLa cells are outdone by yet another breakthrough.

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