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The cost of immortality

An analysis of the ethical issues surrounding HeLa cells, the first immortalised cell line to be used in scientific research

By Abigail Joyce

Henrietta Lacks. Image Credit: Crown Books

The field of bioethics in science is a tentative subject. There are currently many ethical discussions concerning the morality of using human tissue biopsies in scientific and medical research, and the role of consent in the obtaining of cell samples. Much of this discussion arose from the controversial case of Henrietta Lacks.

Born on 1st August 1920, Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who was diagnosed with aggressive cervical cancer at the age of 30, dying from her tumour around 9 months later, on 4th October 1951. During her extensive and painfully damaging radiation treatment, a sample of her cancerous cells was taken by doctors. The biopsy of cells taken from her tumour was sent from Johns Hopkins hospital to local scientist George Gey, who upon propagating the cancerous cells realised that they showed no signs of ageing or “senescence” that cells usually undergo during replication. They continued to replicate and divide without regulation. As a result of this, HeLa cells (named according to Henrietta’s first and last name) were widely distributed and used in countless branches of science, from the development of the polio vaccine, to the investigation of cell replication and ageing, to genetics, cancer research, and understanding disease and viral infection. The development of the polio vaccine alone has prevented 650,000 deaths and 13 million cases of paralysis since 1988, and HeLa cells have undoubtedly acted as a catalyst in modern medicin

The ethical issues that arose predominantly stemmed from the lack of consent provided by Henrietta or her family members for the use of her biopsied tissue for anything other than diagnosis. The Lacks family was given no form of compensation or information, despite the use of their relative’s cells in countless scientific discoveries and in benefitting the reputation and wealth of hundreds of scientists and pharmaceutical companies. Her name was not released publicly and her family was not informed of the cells’ existence until the 1970s, almost two decades after her cells had been taken. Many argue that more compensation should have been given to her family due to the extensive use of her cells.

The Lacks family was highly religious, from a poorly educated background and did not understand or agree with the idea of their ancestor’s cells being traded and bartered between research institutes and scientists. They believed strongly that the cells were Henrietta’s “resurrection body” and they were a means for her to return to earth and help humankind, even analogising the resurrection of Jesus by quoting John 11:25; “Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live and believe in me will never die.” From a religious perspective, the maintenance of cells outside of the body of the deceased could be considered a form of immortality, and therefore the distribution of these cells without permission from the deceased or their family is seen as disrespectful and a violation of that person’s being.

Microscopic Image of HELA cells. Image Credit: Paul Anastasiadis, Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering

The case of Henrietta Lacks’ cells has led to prominent changes in scientific legislation. Under the Human Tissue Act of 2004, cell lines in the UK are now anonymised and consent is required for the use of human cells in research, and in 2013, an agreement was announced between the Lacks family and the National Institutes of Health to give Henrietta’s family more control over access to their ancestor’s DNA sequence. Complex arguments have arisen from this case: was the suffering of Henrietta and the ignorance shown towards her family a justifiable price to pay for the thousands of lives saved, or prolonged, by the use of the immortal HeLa cell lines?

From Issue 16

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