The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
“Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multi-million dollar industry. More than 20 years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same.”
A recent post at Black Looks reminded me of a fascinating story I came across in one of my earliest courses in medical anthropology. The story is that of Henrietta Lacks, a 31 year old poor black woman from Baltimore, Maryland (USA) who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. During her illness, Henrietta’s cervical cancer cells were taken from her body without her permission, and following her death, her case became among the most famous examples of ‘bad’ medical ethics particularly where race and class were involved.
Coincidentally, a new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (February 2010) explores, in greater depth, the story of “a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors” and whose cells, the ‘HeLa’ line, (as they came to be known in science) “became one of the most important tools in medicine.”
The HeLa cells were the first of their kind. In fact:
Those cells became the first human tissue to replicate indefinitely in test tubes, launching a series of revolutions in medicine. The value of the so-called HeLa cell line that sprung from Lacks’ tumor is incalculable: Its resilience and rapid growth made it ideal for testing Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, developing numerous cancer drugs, studying basic cellular processes, and honing experimental methods now standard in biology. Over the years, Lacks’ cells have been sold for $10 to as much as $10,000 a vial—and her chronically impoverished family has received nothing.
Sixty years after Lacks’ cells were taken from her in a ‘blacks only’ ward at Johns Hopkins hospital, her ‘immortal’ cells (they are still growing even today) continue to be bought and propagated in research labs around the world by the billions. They have helped to eradicate polio, develop cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization, and were tested in nuclear sites worldwide. HeLa cells have been immeasurably important to cancer research for decades. However, Lacks’ own family did not learn of her medical legacy until 20 years after her death when they were also unethically recruited into HeLa research. Despite her monumental contribution to science, her children and grandchildren were “all reared in poverty and too often without health insurance.” In the words of Lacks’s youngest daughter, Deborah: “If our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors?”
Lacks’ case has for years raised questions about racism and health and of course concerns about medical compensation and distributive justice for patients and families. Science, of course, continues to be shaped by the inequalities presented by race, class and gender, particularly the surveillance of certain types of bodies over others, and there are numerous other cases to demonstrate this. Incidentally, I also came across a recent TIME article ‘Why Racial Profiling Persists in Medical Research’ (August 2009) which investigates how race, a social construct, is interpreted in biological research and how it subsequently defines science.