I Own Myself, Don’t I?

By Medical Discovery News

May 5, 2012

Henrietta Lacks

From a fascinating story, a question arises: do people own their tissues? In the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot describes how Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells were instrumental in some of the most important advances in medicine and research. Yet her cells were used without her or her family’s knowledge.

Lacks was from a working class family in a segregated community near Baltimore. Doctors at The Johns Hopkins University Hospital diagnosed the mother of five with cervical cancer in 1951. But the tumor was so aggressive, even with treatment she died that year.

Without Lacks’ or her family’s knowledge, her doctors gave a sample of her tumor to a researcher at Johns Hopkins. Dr. George Gey had been searching unsuccessfully for human cells that could survive indefinitely in culture so that researchers could experiment with them. He found Lacks’ cells did. They were and are a biomedical marvel – hardy cells that multiply and survive unlike others before. Gey had found the first “immortal” cells, a cell line that can be frozen and grown indefinitely in a lab for research. The development stands as one of the major building blocks of modern biomedical science.

Within the first year of Lacks’ death, her cells, named HeLa after the first two letters of her first and last names, were already being tested in labs. The Polio vaccine was tested on HeLa cells before its widespread use. Researchers infected HeLa cells with viruses such as mumps, measles and herpes and launched the modern study of virology.

In 1960 the cells were launched into space to test the impact of weightlessness and radiation on human cells. Then in 1965, HeLa cells were used to create mouse-human hybrid cells for the first time. This ability to fuse cells of different species led to the mapping of human genes to individual chromosomes and laid the groundwork for the DNA sequence of the human genome decoded in 2000.

Eventually researchers found HeLa cells could be mailed, launching the commercialization of these and other cell lines. Though millions of dollars have been generated, Henrietta’s family never benefited. They didn’t learn that her tissues were in labs around the world until over two decades following her death. Their reaction and those of other families persuaded policy makers to enact legislation that requires informed consent for all research on human subjects.

But today, most people sign these forms obediently, not having much more control over their tissues than Lacks did. The issue of whether people own their cells will become even more contested as the area of genetic research becomes ever more important.

Yet, as author Rebecca Skloot points out, her book is not to stop cell culturing, a practice that is vitally important to research. Without it, important medicine and medical treatments would not be possible. The question is how to do it while respecting and weighing an individual’s rights, especially when large sums of money are at stake.

For a link to this story, click here.

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