Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Two Degrees of Separation With Henrietta Lacks

Through the graduate students I tutor, who, today, like biologists the world over, experiment using the cells of the woman "who died of cervical cancer in 1951, [and who] is the source of the HeLa cell line, the first human cells able to reproduce on their own in the laboratory" — Henrietta Lacks' 'Immortal' roots. From the article:
    By the time of her death, researchers at Johns Hopkins University had been trying for years to find cells with such reproductive properties. Lacks' cells -- powered by something in her cancer -- were so remarkable that Hopkins shared them with scientists around the globe. A new industry of mass-producing human cells grew up around them.

    HeLa cells have been used in experiments for decades, enabling countless scientific discoveries, including the polio vaccine and the discovery of chromosomes. The were blown up with an atom bomb and sent into space.

    Still in use, they have been produced at mind-blowing volumes -- enough to wrap around the world three times. They've been called immortal. Yet as vitally important as they have been to science, few have thought about their origins.
HeLa cells "that have been propagated in cell culture far exceeds the total number of cells that were in Henrietta Lacks' body," and have even been given their own own genus and species, Helacyton gartleri. As far as the woman Henrietta Lacks is concerned, however, the "cells from the carcinoma were removed for research purposes without her knowledge or permission."

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3 Comments:

Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

Frighteningly enough, what happened was perfectly legal. Generally, an individual doesn't have an interest in their cells or body parts once those parts have been removed from the body in surgical operations. As my property law professor once so memorably noted, "once your appendix hits the scrap bucket, you don't own it anymore."

2:10 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Yikes!

3:13 PM  
Anonymous love the girls said...

"cells from the carcinoma were removed for research purposes without her knowledge or permission."

So what. Let us dig Yorick up and place his skull on our writing desk.

It's one thing to operate a baby organ farm, it's quite another to take some cells from a corpse.

1:08 PM  

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