How Henrietta Lacks Uninformed Consent Changed the World

The HeLa cell used in biology has made a difference in the world. Interestingly, these cells only exists because of Henrietta Lacks uninformed consent. You might not be familiar with the term, but its uses have touched countless lives since it was discovered. They are actually the first line of human cells that were cloned. HeLa has been used in cancer research, AIDS research, genetic research, just to name a few.

Yet, when you find out where those cells originally came from, it is not as positive as what they have done. HeLa, as it turns out, has a bit of an unethical past. They were found using means we would not consider using in today’s world. Eerily, the cells that have saved an uncountable amount of lives, have a very unnerving history. The cells start with an unknown woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks.

A Tough Beginning for Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks, or Loretta Pleasant if we went by her name at birth, lost her mother at the age of four in 1924. After her dad left her and her siblings, she moved to live with her grandpa and her nine year-old cousin Day Lacks.

Pulled from school in sixth grade to work in the tobacco fields, Henrietta grew up quickly. So quick, in fact, that she had a baby with her cousin Day at the tender age of fourteen. Her second baby, sadly, had some special needs, and after that they had even more babies.

The Lump

After Henrietta had her sixth baby in 1951, she discovered that she had a lump as big as her pinky finger in her cervix. She had to be treated at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, because not all the hospitals of the time were seeing African-Americans. It was there that she learned that she had cervical cancer.

She needed treatment in order to try to combat the cancer. Cancer treatments worked remotely compared to today, so the procedure was a little different. They were going to pack her cervix full of a radioactive metal and then sew it shut.

Then the Cells Changed Everything

Before they gave her the radium, the surgeon took two samples. He removed a sample of healthy tissue and a sample of the cancerous tissue.

At that time in our history, consent was not required by law. Henrietta was never told that they removed the cells without her permission.

The Great Discovery

After Henrietta’s samples were taken, they were given to the research Doctor looking into cancer. His name was George Gey. Gey took the cells into his lab so he could grow a culture with them.

When Henrietta’s cells were put into the incubator they grew. The cells did not die. They actually had doubled their numbers in 24 hours. And then they doubled again after another 24 hours. Henrietta cells were the first discovered immortal cells that had ever been cultured.

The Sad End

Henrietta did not survive cervical cancer. Within the year that it was discovered it had spread into just about every organ in her body. Her body finally gave out on October 4, 1951.

She was buried in the grave without a headstone. None of the doctors told her what her cells were doing. None of the doctors told her family what had become of the samples. No one ever knew that the cells were taken or that they were being used for research.

HeLa Shows What it Can Do

Even though Henrietta had passed away, her cells continued to live. HeLa, so called in abbreviation of her name, had begun changing science. Because the cells could be studied, they could be manipulated. And the results were amazing.

From the HeLa cells, scientists were able to clone human cells. They were able to finally know how many chromosomes a person had. They were able to see what happened to the cells when they were exposed to infection, cancer, radiation, and even more. Because of the cells, the polio vaccine was created. Henrietta had changed the world.

The Aftermath

Finally, in 1973, Henry and his family found out what they had been doing with her cell samples. But the extent was left out. And her family had no part in any of it. They had no say, and they were still living very poorly.

In 1998, there was a documentary made by the BBC that finally told the story of Henrietta and her contribution to medicine and science. In 2010, a biography was written about her life. After that, the book proceeds were used to help support Henrietta’s family after years of hardship. The same year the book came out, the headstone was finally placed on her gravesite.

Henrietta’s Life had impact in other areas of society

Part of what happened to Henrietta Lacks has made some waves in other areas. While in 1951 people didn’t need to give their consent for doctors to remove body parts from them, this isn’t the case anymore. In 1979, the Belmont Report came out.

It was pretty much an outline of what doctors should be doing in terms of researching on humans. Next came the common rule, which further explained how people have rates. It included children, prisoners, pregnant women, and so on. It was really Henrietta’s case, as well as many others, who really pushed for having some rights and say as far as what came out of your body and how it was used.

Related: History of Medicine – just the facts!

Video: Henrietta Lacks – Her Impact and Our Outreach

To honor the life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks, this video highlights her impact on biomedical research and the efforts of Johns Hopkins Medicine to pay homage to her legacy.

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who underwent treatment for an aggressive form of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. Despite receiving a high standard of medical treatment, Mrs. Lacks ultimately succumbed to this cancer at the young age of 31.

However, her extraordinary cells—called “HeLa” from the first two letters of her first and last names—continued to reproduce in the laboratory. This was the first time in history that a human cell line was able to be reproduced in a laboratory setting.

This situation gave medical researchers the opportunity to improve the human condition by allowing them to better understand, treat, and prevent a wide range of diseases, including the development of the polio vaccine, cancer treatment protocols, AIDS research, and much more.