Why has the discovery of the existence of HeLa cells been so difficult for the Lacks family? Do you think that her children’s lives would have turned out significantly different had Henrietta...

Why has the discovery of the existence of HeLa cells been so difficult for the Lacks family? Do you think that her children’s lives would have turned out significantly different had Henrietta not died so young?

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trophyhunter1 | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Although one can only guess how Henrietta Lack's family would have fared had she lived a longer life, one can appreciate how difficult it is for the family, when a mother dies very young and leaves behind young children. In the case of Henrietta Lacks, cells taken from her cervix and grown in culture, were later used to perform medical research without her approval or her family's.

Henrietta Lacks was a young black woman who had cervical cancer and eventually died from it. A scientist at Johns Hopkins removed two samples of her cervix during treatment for her cancer--a healthy part and a cancerous part. Her cervical tissue sample was grown in culture and unlike most cells that have a certain number of cell divisions before they die off in culture, hers never did. They are considered an immortal cell line and are called HeLa cells after Henrietta Lacks.

A researcher named George Gey realized this to be the case and he isolated an immortal cell and started a cell line. Since the donor wasn't anonymous in those days, her identity was eventually determined by the press. She never gave permission for scientists to grow or perform research on her cells. However, they did so and were able to learn about gene mapping and cloning and her cell line even helped Jonas Salk to develop a polio vaccine. Many medical breakthroughs can be attributed to research involving the HeLa cell line.

HeLa cells were the first human biological materials bought and sold, with no financial gain to the family. This family lived in poverty most of their lives. The daughter Deborah never got to know her mother because she was a baby when her mother died. The sons became angry that the family didn't get any money from the sale of their mother's immortal cells. Henrietta Lacks and her family never gave permission to harvest her cells. At the time that this was done, it was not required by law.

In the 1980's, these cells were commercialized and family records were published without consent. Unfortunately, on July 9, 1990 the court ruled that a person's discarded tissue and cells are not their property and can be commercialized. In March 2013, the genome of a strain of HeLa cells was published again without the Lacks family permission. Now, because of an agreement with the National Institutes of Health, the family can have some control of access to the cells' genetic code and Henrietta Lacks is given acknowledgment in research derived from using her cells. 

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