The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

1 January 2017

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Indeed Henrietta Lacks’ life is immortal. Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman of the 1950’s. She suffered from cervical cancer and eventually passed away at age 31. Because of her gender and race, she was treated unfairly and unable to receive proper treatment for cancer. A doctor by the name of Howard Jones was responsible for Henrietta’s diagnosis. As he examined the tumor in her cervix, he discovered it’s unusual size and color. Henrietta was then scheduled for treatment.

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The surgeon on duty was responsible for her treatment. His name was Lawrence Wharton. Because of Richard TeLinde’s theory, for research purposes, Wharton helped himself to a few samples of her cervix without the consent of Henrietta Lacks or her family. He then sent the tissues to a specialist by the name of George Gey. George Gey and his wife Margaret had been studying and growing cell cultures for years. With that being said, Gey and his wife grew Henrietta’s samples in a test tube in a lab at Johns Hopkins hospital. He eventually realized that these cells were not normal.

They were immortal. And even now, fives decades after her death, HeLa cells are still being used for scientific research. A curious biology student known as Rebecca Skloot wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. When Skloot was 16, she was taking a biology course at a community college for high school credit because the alternative school she went to didn’t offer it. Sitting in this biology lecture at 16, she was learning words like mitosis and kinase inhibitors (Skloot 2). At this particular time in her studies, she was learning about cells, including cell functions and cell parts.

Her instructor explained to her that cells were amazing things. And to help the students understand how scientists have researched cells in previous years, he wrote a name on the board. The name read, “HENRIETTA LACKS” (Skloot 3). She wanted to know what was behind HeLa cells, and she wanted to know what they stood for. She began doing research and interviewing people who had any knowledge of the story. And as a result of her research, interviews, investigations, notes, and book, society knows more now than they ever did before. As I read the book,

Skloot sparked my interest because the story she told is not only about the immortal cells, but also about the life of Henrietta’s struggling family after her death. I was sitting in my room trying to comprehend the story. Not that I didn’t understand what was going on, but I didn’t understand why. The most captivating part of this book is the controversy in it all. At one end of the spectrum there is a black woman in the 1950’s with cervical cancer, and at the other end, there is white male doctor treating her for free yet, stealing from her for research.

I thought about it for a while and eventually came to the conclusion that TeLinde, Wharton and Gey were wrong for doing so. Still to this day, HeLa’s family has never been repaid for their unknown contribution to scientific research. Henrietta’s family didn’t learn of her immortality until scientists began investigating the cells and using her husband and children as research subjects without their consent. Once they understood what was happening to them, they were outraged. They felt violated in a way that scientists have been studying their family for years and making billions of dollars while they’re struggling to make ends meet.

Her son, Lawrence Lack’s states, “If our mother is so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance. ” The story begins when Henrietta started to feel pain after the birth of her daughter Deborah. She was with her family and told her cousins that sex was painful and it felt like there was a “knot in her womb”. A week later she found out she was pregnant with her son Joe. Her cousins assumed and proceeded to tell her that the pain was probably caused by the pregnancy. But Henrietta didn’t believe so. Four and a half months after Joe was born, Henrietta began spotting.

She examined herself and realized it was something more than just giving birth to five children. She discovered a large and hard lump. As soon as she got her clothes on, she told her husband she needed to go to the doctor. She then went to her local doctor’s office. He figured that the lump was caused by syphilis. When the syphilis tested negative, the doctor said she should go to Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins was a hospital that specialized in gynecology. At this day and age, it was hard to get proper care because of her race.

Johns Hopkins was the only hospital that the Lacks’ could go to because it was the only hospital for twenty miles that accepted black patients. Most of the public wards were filled with blacks that were unable to pay their medical bills. When Henrietta arrived at the hospital, a doctor by the name of Howard Jones examined her. He began by reviewing her medical history like most doctors would. Then he began examining the cervix. The tissues were so unusual that he sent a sample to pathology. It didn’t look like any tumor or lesion that he had ever seen before.

Less than a week later, Jones got the results of her biopsy. Henrietta tested positive for cervical cancer. She was then referred to treatment. Richard TeLinde was one of the top gynecologist’s at Johns Hopkins. He believed that noninvasive cancer was just an early stage of evasive cancer. He wanted to prove his theory so he began taking cultures from his patients and growing them in a lab just as he instructed Wharton to do to Henrietta. But Henrietta’s cells were unique. They were the only cells that survived out of the many that Gey had researched. Henrietta’s cells were doubling in numbers by the day.

Gey had been the first to discover immortal human cells. He then began giving samples of these immortal cells to colleagues. After all, I don’t believe Gey is to blame for the removal without consent. It was TeLinde’s theory and practice that influence the culture. He had been removing cells from his patients without consent for a while. Gey just studied them. Unfortunately treatment wasn’t enough to save Henrietta and she eventually died in 1951. The research of her immortal cells was more important to the staff at Johns Hopkins than saving her life.

After her death, her family then moved on with their lives and was never informed about the immortal cells and never learned the results of her autopsy. The cells taken from her were still growing and multiplying daily. Dr. Gey continued to study them. He named the cells HeLa. Unlike the research he had done on the cells of the patients before Henrietta, he couldn’t figure out why these her cells were still actively reproducing. He hired help from other scientists. As I said before, he was giving then giving cells to colleagues for almost nothing, making no profit.

The cells were growing out of control and almost anyone could get their hands on them. And the people that studied the cells and put them to good use made millions and were set for life. It just seems unfair. People at the time were searching for a cure for polio. Jonas Salk heard of the immortal cells and demanded that he have some for his research. He then created a polio vaccine using HeLa cells. To test the vaccine, the cells were being mass-produced in a cell production factory. Henrietta’s cells were also used for the research of cancer, AIDS, gene mapping, the parvovirus. I believe they’ve even been to space.

Henrietta’s cells were such a contribution to the world, which makes her story more controversial than it seems. In a way, George Gey did the right thing by dispersing the cells. They’ve saved so many lives and helped so many people. But on the other hand, the Lacks family was uninformed of the discovery, and didn’t receive what was rightfully theirs. I truly believe that they weren’t informed and didn’t get compensation because they were poor black people. When Rebecca Skloot began her research to write the book, her first plan of action was to interview the ones closest to Henrietta Lacks.

She tried getting a hold of her children, but before any member of the family met with her, she had to go through Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s son. At first, Lawrence was angry. He said, “But I have always thought it was strange, if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors? Don’t make no sense. People got rich off my mother without us even knowin about them takin her cells, now we don’t get a dime…”(preface to Ch. 1). It goes to show the heartache that her family must’ve felt once they knew of the profits that people were making off of their genes.

I know that I keep reiterating this, but it just isn’t right. Once Skloot was able to interview most of the family, she assured them that as long as they cooperated she would do anything to help them learn more about their mother and her immortal cells. She befriended Deborah Lacks and was constantly working with her to get the most truthful story. Unfortunately when I was five years old, my mother died of astrocytoma. Astrocytoma is a tumor of mutated star-shaped cells. Astrocytoma is a pretty rare brain tumor. I believe rare cancer is valuable to scientific research.

If a sample of my mother’s tumor was used for scientific research without her consent, my family would’ve been outraged. Even more outraged if my mother’s cancer cells were profiting everyone but my family. We also as a family struggle to hold onto jobs and find health insurance. Put yourself in that situation. It’s not about how much money you should receive for your family member’s cells, but it’s about the truth. It’s about knowing who, what, when, where, and why they were taken. Susan Hsu, the director of medical genetics at the American Red Cross believed that the Lacks family should be proud of their mother’s contribution to science.

Because Hsu explains that Henrietta Lacks, in a way, will never really die. Her cells have now been living longer outside of her body than they had inside. In the 1950’s it was unethical to question doctors. I recently had a discussion with my grandma about her experience with doctors around that same time. My grandma was a successful white woman. And even then, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she just did what the doctors told her to do. She said, “It was unheard of to question someone with a higher education than you. Henrietta Lacks and the rest of the Lacks family were very little educated if educated at all. Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter states that, “Education is everything. If I’d had more of it, maybe this whole thing about my mother wouldn’t have been so hard”(page 251). It’s very understandable to be frustrated when you don’t understand what your doctor is talking about if they tell you what they’re talking about at all. Now, at this day and age, doctors ask you if you have any questions. You’re also required to consent to everything before you even talk to the doctor. Things have changed.

Many cases of uninformed consent have caused devalued creditability to even the best doctors. Doctor’s can now be sued for leaving out the finest detail. In part 3 of Skloot’s book, she mentions that Deborah and Zakariyya go to Hopkins to see the cells for the first time. Deborah was very pleased at the site of her mother’s cells. She was able to see how they were stored and she got to use a high-tech microscope to examine them. She felt fulfilled. Deborah felt relieved. She didn’t want any money. She just wanted to know. Lawrence on the other hand was too busy concocting a plan to sue Hopkins.

He wanted to hire a lawyer to get what was rightfully theirs. Although, the supreme court of California ruled that when tissues are removed from your body, with or without consent, any claim that you own them vanishes. When you leave tissues behind in a doctor’s office or lab, it is considered abandoning waste and anyone can use them to their benefit. This didn’t necessarily apply to the Lacks because they weren’t from California, but it just goes to show that your opinions don’t matter to the ones above you. I find it hard to believe that Lawrence would’ve actually won the case.

Not only because it has been so long since they were taken, but also because the cells helped society. In a judge’s eye, Johns Hopkins was helping the world rather than doing any harm. I’m not 100% sure that this would’ve been the outcome, but it’s a logical hypothesis. It took most of the family a long time to accept what had happened. Deborah was probably the most positive one of all. She said, “Like I’m always telling my brothers, if you gonna go into history, you can’t do it with a hate attitude. You got to remember, times was different”(page 276). In conclusion, Skloot writes that the Lacks family has a few legal options.

Unfortunately, they are unable to sue Johns Hopkins. Although, they can file a lawsuit to stop HeLa research because it does contain their DNA. But most lawyers say that such an argument wouldn’t hold up in a courtroom. I personally don’t think the Lacks family wants to stop HeLa research. I believe that they just want people to honor their mother for her contribution. But come on now, at least one of the hundreds of medical researchers and companies using HeLa cells for their benefit could provide the family with health insurance. After all, her cells have changed the world.

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