On October 4, 1951, an African-American woman, Henrietta Lacks, died of complications resulting from cervical cancer. Her death, however, went on to forever change medical research.
How do you feel about a part of your body, such as an abnormal tissue or a defective organ, being removed without your permission and being used for medical research?
Would the end justify the means: if your "ex-body part" went on to provide scientists a crucial clue or become an indispensable lab tool for conducting tests on, would you be OK with what was done to you?
That was precisely what happened to Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman from Virginia, USA, who died on October 4, 1951, as a result of complications arising from cervical cancer.
After giving birth to her fifth child, Lacks began to bleed abnormally and profusely. Soon after, she began to feel a knot in her belly, and was referred to Johns Hopkins Hospital (JHH) by a local physician. On January 29, 1951, Lacks consulted Dr. Howard Jones at JHH, who detected a lump in her cervix.
Subsequently, Jones put Lacks under radiation treatment. During the treatment, on February 8, 1951, he cut off some tissue from the lump as well as some from its healthy surroundings without Lacks' prior consent.
Cells from these tissues were eventually passed on to Dr. George Gey, also at JHH, who developed them: as the cells multiplied, they produced other cells like them. Subsequently, Gey preserved the cells, and founded what was called the HeLa cell line (named for the first letters of Lacks' name).
These cells exhibited a unique property: they didn't die. A lot of cells could be developed, and they'd live on sans aging. Scientists could perform experiments on them across decades and compare the results. After all, they'd have been the same original cells.
In the 1950s, Gey developed tools and techniques to preserve, store, and replicate the cells, tools and techniques that he freely distributed to his peers around the globe. Among other applications, HeLa cells were used to study the properties of human cells, the results from which were applied in developing cosmetics and medicines. But what about the legacy of Henrietta Lacks?
Yes, her relatives were recognised and rewarded for "their contribution" to medical research. However, at the time the cells were removed from Lacks' body, scientists had no idea about their impact. That Lacks didn't know about it makes the act more questionable, irrational, and dangerous.
Does the end justify the means? A similar case related to medical research, albeit tenuously, was recorded during World War II.