Henrietta Lacks, and her ‘immortal’ life, spark an ethical discussion

Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman from Baltimore, whose cervical cancer cells were taken and grown for researcher without her consent or knowledge.

March 25, 2013

By Emily Laidley ’13

The Department of Women’s Studies teamed up with the Peoria Reads program this month to host a panel discussion on the ethics of biomedical research, race and gender based around the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

The book, by Rebecca Skloot, chronicles the writer’s efforts to discover what became of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African-American woman from Baltimore, whose cervical cancer cells were biopsied, grown in culture, sent out for study and eventually sold to researchers all over the world for millions of dollars.

Her cells, dubbed the HeLa cells, have become one of the most important tools in modern medicine, contributing to the development of the polio vaccine and gene mapping.  HeLa cells were even sent into space to study its effects on human cells. Though her cell line is famous and invaluable to the field of medicine, all of this was done without Lacks’ knowledge or consent. Lacks herself remained virtually unknown to the scientific community until Skloot’s book.

Members of the panel discussion, hosted in part by the ongoing Women in Science lecture series, discussed how the non-fiction book addresses the social and racial politics of medicine.

“In this book, Skloot records her own thoughts as she journeys to know more about Henrietta and her family,” said Dr. Lori Wiebold, assistant professor in Bradley’s sociology department, who spoke at the panel. “And in doing so, Skloot provides space for this important discourse: the discussion of race and class, as well as the experience of people involved in medicine, both as a patient and as a research participant."

Wiebold stated researchers later went back to Henrietta’s family to get blood samples to do more research on HeLa cells. There was so much confusion on the family’s part that even several decades later, her husband and her son thought Lacks was somehow still alive and being studied.

Dr. Nick Stover, associate professor in Bradley’s biology department, explained how the HeLa cells, taken from Lacks’ tumor, are remarkable. The cell line has grown in laboratories ever since they were first cultured and are hence referred to as being “immortal.” HeLa cells are now sold online by Invitrogen for $10,250.

Aside from Drs. Wiebold and Stover, the panel discussion also included Dr. Brian McIntyre, assistant professor of clinical psychology at University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, and Dr. Jill Wightman, an assistant professor of anthropology at Bradley.

Dr. Wightman put the commoditization of Lacks’ body into a global perspective. She made the point that urban legends of “body snatchers” or “organ stealers” are a global phenomenon and believes these stories come from the voice of the powerless. Often, she said, they are based on some small grain of truth, such as taking cells from a poor black woman in the 1950s and using them for research.

“Even if individual autonomy then becomes the bottom line, are we ignoring the ways in which biomedical research and the harvesting of human tissues and organs disproportionately draws from certain social groups and benefits certain other social groups?” Dr. Wrightman asked. “Is it just about these individuals making choices if these individuals are trapped in an economic system and inequality that aren’t necessarily providing them the same choices that you or I might make?”