Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Henrietta Lacks And Bioethics

Henrietta Lacks is arguably the most important woman to the advancement of biology to ever have lived. Mrs. Lacks was diagnosed at 29 in 1951 with Stage 1 invasive cervical cancer. Married mother of 5, Lacks turned to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland when she began spotting well prior to her menstruation cycle and discovered a lump on her cervix (“The miracle woman,” 2010). Her first treatment was given right after a biopsy that neither she nor her husband consented to. Three months later, she died (“The miracle woman,” 2010). Mrs. Lacks cells produced the first immortal cell, dividing at such a rate that an entire generation was born in just 24 hours (“The story of,” 2010). Coined “HeLa” cells, Henrietta’s cells have been used to test the effect of chemotherapy, develop methods for cloning, gene mapping and in-vitro fertilization (“Five reasons henrietta,” 2010). They helped produce treatments for polio (“Five reasons henrietta,” 2010), influenza, herpes, Parkinson’s, hemophilia, leukemia and lactose intolerance(Skloot, 2010). Because of her biopsy scientists have come to understand the intricacies of DNA and the effects of zero-gravity on human cells and can be attributed to the clinical trials currently in place for a cancer treatment (Skloot, 2010). In a short period of time after discovering the immortality of “HeLa” cells, they became the standard for research sold to labs all over the world (“The story of,” 2010). And even though the pathologist and doctor taking the biopsy has profited millions of dollars by selling her tissues all over the world (NPR, 2010), her family knew nothing of her contribution until 25 years later when scientists sought to test their cells for similar properties (Skloot, 2010). In fact, early publications briefly mentioned Henrietta in journals and text books as “Helen Lane (Skloot, 2010),” referencing no more than her condition perhaps to protect the lack of authorization of the pathologist who biopsied her.
The outrage of Henrietta’s family, a group of people who could not afford health insurance despite the immense fortune Henrietta’s cells was responsible for, was well documented in special interest magazines, such as Ebony, despite Henrietta’s absence from medical journals, and laid the foundation for an establishment of bioethics, at least the matter that handles the importance of consent and credit where it is due. Also, as a contribution to epidemiology, this is a perfect example of balancing research of a condition with ways to treat it (Outram, 2011).

I definitely see purpose in bioethics, within reason. In my opinion that doctor and pathologist had absolutely no right to benefit financially from “HeLa” cells. The first manner of business when their properties were identified should have been to notify Mrs. Lacks of their discovery, attempt further treatment with their findings and offer negotiations for the continued use. Perhaps she could have supplied further samples, her family could have been involved earlier and the “HeLa” cells could have been supplied throughout the scientific community free of charge. I would think it is public opinion that making millions of dollars off of “stolen property” is not just unethical, it is also fraud. I understand that had she not consented and her wishes were respected, that we would not be where we are today as far as our understanding of medicine and human processes, but at the very least a profit should not have been made regarding the sale of “HeLa” cells.

In regards to other bioethics issues, I feel this discipline has a responsibility to protect the individual rights of the patient and "donor," as well as the safety and well-being of the public. I do not, however, think that morals and ethics should be based on any religious beliefs. I do not believe that religion has any place in science, in fact, I believe it to be a detriment to the advancement of science. Morals, without religious belief, are perfectly capable of protecting the public as well as individual patient rights.

As an afterthought, I was unable to find even a mention of bioethics or epidemiology in the index of our text book. Curious.


Five reasons henrietta lacks is the most important woman in medical history [Web log message]. (2010, February 05). Retrieved from

‘Henrietta lacks': A donor's immortal legacy [Web series episode]. (2010) In NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. Retrieved from

Outram, S. M. (2011). Epidemiology and bioethics: A plea for reconnecting with the public. REVUE CANADIENNE DE SANTÉ PUBLIQUE, 102, 4-6. Retrieved from ProQuest.
Skloot, R. (2010). The immortal life of henrietta lacks. New York, NY: Crown. Epilogue. Retrieved from

The miracle woman. (2010), O : The Oprah Magazine, 11(2), 159. Retrieved from

The story of henrietta lacks & modern medical research, this week on sound medicine - office of public and media relations. (2011, May 24). IU Medicine Communications. Retrieved from

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