Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, but not her cells. Her cell, known as HeLa, is the first human immortal cell line. It helped many inventions in medicine, including developing the polio vaccine, research on cancers, viruses, cloning, fertilization, and gene mapping. Although HeLa was the most famous cell in the medical fields, Henrietta Lacks didn’t enjoy the fame and honor she deserved.
She was a poor African-American mother of 5 when she died at the age of 31. When she had unexpected bleeding, she went to Johns Hopkins hospital because it was the only major hospital which treated black people at the time. She was diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer and received radium treatment several times. During the procedure, doctors took her cervical tissue without her knowledge and sent it to a lab for research. There, scientists succeeded in growing her cells in a culture, and her cells acquired immortal life.
The scientist gave the cells to researchers all over the world who wanted to experiment on them. Trillions of her cells have been growing in labs since then and have been making profits by the billions. Her family didn’t know any of this until a scientist called her family after 25 years and told them part of her mother was alive, and he wanted to carry out experiments with her children’s blood samples for further research. The fact that part of their mother was alive was quite shocking to them. The family members were under-educated, and they didn’t know what a cell was. They learned that she wasn’t alive as a human, but the image of scientists experimenting on their mother tormented them. Her daughter wondered if part of her life was alive and was being used in experiments all around the world; her mother could not rest in peace. The scientists left the family worrying by not explaining it in detail. Her daughter worried sick if she had the same cancer cells that killed their mother.
The family did not receive any money, and it’s difficult to claim the dividend because it occurred in the 1950’s when the informed consent wasn’t widespread. Even now, claiming the property right seems unlikely once the tissue is separated from our body. They are angry at the doctors and scientists who received profits by using their mother’s cell while they are struggling to keep afloat. They can’t afford health insurance, and can’t receive the benefit their mother helped develop in the medical fields. It took 10 years for the author to write and publish this book. The family was suspicious of reporters and scientists who exploited them. Eventually, they were proud of their mother for what she had done after the author helped the family to unravel the mystery of their mother and HeLa.
I can’t thank enough Henrietta and her family, but at the same time, I felt so sorry for them. This book touched me by the unusual life of Henrietta and her family, and the importance of the ethics each of us should possess.