Rebecca Skloot paints a picture of Lacks’s life just as she approached her death and much of the controversy that surrounded the collection of her cancerous cells. These cells, which came to be termed “HeLa cells” are used today in medical research. These HeLa cells have “upregulated” telomerase that elongate the telomeric ends of chromosomes and hinder the process of apoptosis and result in “unlimited cycles of replication” (Kocher slide 33). These observations have led to HeLa cells being referred to as immortal. Many cancer cells exhibit this upregulated telomerase characteristic.
The use of Henrietta Lacks cells has led to many scientific breakthroughs, e.g., the cure to polio, cloning, and the human genome project. Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. These cells underwent a mutation that caused them to become immortal, meaning that they continue to divide since her death in 1951 to this very day. However, her cells raise an ethical question, because before she died she did not give consent for scientists to use her cells and after she died they did not tell her family that they were using them. This has been an ongoing controversy because the cells have been so beneficial for society, but they are derived from shady procedures.
This story occurred during a time of segregation in the United States, when Henrietta Lacks believed she was receiving the best possible treatment for her illness. Unfortunately, at this point in time doctors believed radium treated cancer, which we know today can actually increase the risk for cancer and cell research was just beginning in medicine. The journey of Henrietta started with her medical treatment occurring on a “colored” ward at John Hopkins Hospital in the 1950’s and ending in a white laboratory where freezers sit full of HeLa cells; now today, her children and grandchildren live in East Baltimore and still struggle with the legacy of her cells. Henrietta’s tumor cells were taken from her body and given to a scientist named George Gey. Her cells were the first to live and grow outside of the body for an extended period of time, and they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years.
Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 26 Apr. 2010.
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