Who knew science could be racist? I sure didn’t.
Then, I found out about the story of Henrietta Lacks and her HeLa cells. The cells that are the reason why I don’t have polio. The cells that have been used for virology, pharmaceutical and cosmetic testing, HPV, HIV, salmonella, Parkinson’s, and leukemia research, among other areas. The cells that were secretly stolen from a dying cancer patient.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks explains the shocking story of the Lacks family that still suffers from the injustice of cell research from the 1950s. Henrietta Lacks, a black woman undergoing treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, had a sample of her tumor taken by her doctor without consent. The sample was given to George Gey, a researcher who had been trying to culture human cell samples but was never successful. Henrietta’s cells, which became known as HeLa cells, however, grew and divided endlessly.
HeLa cells soon became the number one cell line for research across the scientific field. Unbeknownst to the Lacks family, Henrietta’s cells were sent around the world, as they were the first cells to be “immortal.” The cell line, who has contributed to millions of dollars of biological research, was never credited to the source, Henrietta, and the family has not been compensated even to this day.
Henrietta’s husband and five children, who suffered traumatically in their youth and adulthood, suffered in poverty. Clearly, the Lacks family received no financial benefit from this while the distributor of the cells reaped enormous profits from the HeLa cells.
Crazy, right? What shocks me the most is that among the popularity of this book, and the requirement for consent in medicine is that the Lacks family still has not been legally or financially compensated. How is it that someone has not formalized an official apology and given the Lacks family a greater say in the future of the HeLa cells?
Johns Hopkins has had a history of immoral treatment to African Americans. Henrietta Lacks was sadly one of the victims of this mistreatment. However, is there a connection to racism today? Does racism explain why the family is being treated this way? Or could this also be a question of the power of money? They surely were some of the reasons back in the day, but we are all aware of how both of these factors play in society, even in today’s time. The poverty-stricken Lacks had little knowledge on medical research and even less money to essentially have a greater voice against the government and medical world. But almost 70 years later, if poverty and race are the issues, then we have never overcome the discrimination that has been engrained in American history for hundreds of years.
I invite you to reflect also on the ethical questions raised by Henrietta’s case. It seems impossible that there still exists this problem of exploitation in an age where we try to bring justice. Learn more about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks through the book written by Rebecca Skloot and the movie that animates the story through film.