Essay: Henrietta Lacks

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  • Subject area(s): Science essays
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  • Published on: January 7, 2019
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  • Henrietta Lacks
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Born in Roanoke, Virginia on August 1, 1920, Henrietta Lacks would one day unknowingly be the reason for one of the most important cell lines in medical research. Henrietta Lacks became the source of HeLa cells after her death on October 4, 1951 (aged 31), cells which were the first immortalized cell line in history; immortalized cels are cells that will reproduce indefinitely under specific conditions. While Henrietta’s cells were and continue to be used to treat many illnesses, there was never any consent given from Henrietta herself, or any of her family. To this day, no portion of the billions of dollars made from HeLa cells ever found it’s way to Henrietta’s family. The medical ethics in the 1950’s are very questionable in comparison to the present time. An incident such as Henrietta Lacks’ case would most likely never happen in the 21st century.
Originally Loretta Pleasant, at the age of four, Henrietta’s mother died during the birth of her tenth child. After the death of her mother, Henrietta’s father moved her family to Virginia where each child was distributed among relatives. Henrietta ended up living in a cabin with her Grandfather sharing a room with her cousin David Lacks. Henrietta worked as a tobacco farmer at a young age, when Henrietta was fourteen she gave birth to her first child, Lawerence Lacks. Four years later, Henriette gave birth to her first daughter, Elise Lacks.By 1950, Henrietta and David Lacks had another three children.

The beginning of 1951 is when Henrietta Lacks visited Johns Hopkins, the only hospital in the area that treated black patients, because she felt a pain in her womb. She was told she was pregnant. However, after giving birth to her fifth child, Henrietta had a severe hemorrhage. After many tests were run, a hard mass was found on Henrietta’s cervix. During treatment, two samples were taken from Henrietta’s cervix, one healthy and one cancerous, without her knowledge. For the final months of her life, Henrietta remained in the hospital until her death on October 4, 1951. The cancer had spread throughout her entire body.

While Henrietta’s body was undergoing an autopsy, researcher George Otto Gey had his assistant take more cell samples from Henrietta’s body. Another case of testing ethics is the case of when a leading virologist, Chester M. Southam, injected HeLa cells into cancer patients, prison inmates, and healthy individuals in order to observe whether cancer could be transmitted as well as to examine if one could become immune to cancer by developing an acquired immune response, all possibly life threatening tests. In the early 1970’s, the HeLa cell line had been contaminated, and scientists realized that they needed to test Henrietta’s living family in an attempt to try and figure out what had cause the contamination of the immortal cells. When the scientists visited Henrietta’s family to take blood samples, they didn’t explain to Henrietta’s family as to what was going on, simply telling the family that they were being tested for the cancer that had killed their mother.

It was not until Henrietta’s first born son Lawrence’s wife, Bobette, found out by chance about Henrietta’s cells being used, that Henrietta’s family first learned about her cells being mass produced and used all over the world. Lawerence’s wife had attended dinner with a friend, whose husband was a cancer researcher. The man had recognized the last name Lacks and had told Bobette that he was working in the lab on some cells that came from a woman name Henrietta Lacks. The researcher explained to Bobette that the cells had been growing for years, ever since 1951.

HeLa cells have been exposed to toxins and infections and tested with countless drugs. All this of this testing on HeLa cells has led to thousands of new pieces of knowledge advancing scientific technology. The amount of HeLa cells that have been produced is so substantial that researchers estimate that if the cells were to be laid down all end-to-end, the cells would wrap around the planet at least three times. HeLa cells made it possible to expose the cells to conditions that wouldn’t have been ethical if they were inside a human body. However it is quite strange that exposing cells inside a human body would be unethical, still there was no question of ethics when cells were taken and used from a dead body without the permission of the individual. At the time, the general standpoint of medical science is that cells taken from an individual and used for research benefit the common good, therefore it is okay to use them. However, the case of Henrietta Lacks would state otherwise, as Henrietta’s cells were used to develops medical treatments, none of those treatments available to those who cannot afford medical insurance.

At the time, medical ethics were not something that was thought much about. In the United Kingdom as well as in the United States, if a general consent form was signed before surgery, any sample cells removed may be used for research later, and the doctors are not required to make the patients aware of the fact. However, that doesn’t stand to be true in the case of Henrietta’s cells being removed during an autopsy. In 1990, a similar issue was brought up in court and the court ultimately ruled that an individuals tissue and cells are not their property and can be commercialized. There was no permission granted for Henrietta’s cells to be harvested. However, at the time, permission was not required. In the 1980s similarly, medical records were openly published without family consent.

Medical ethics has changed drastically over the course of many years. Something that was once considered not even questionable, is normal today. And that which would be done without question before, needs multiple forms of consent today. For example, it wasn’t until 1973, that the world saw the first case of a patient being able to refuse treatment. There are many examples of how ethics in medicine were rarely considered many years ago. In 1932, The Tuskegee Syphilis Study took place, it was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health. Effects of untreated syphilis was studied in 400 African American men who were not aware that they were in an experiment. Researchers withheld treatment even when penicillin became widely available. Most subjects who attended the Tuskegee clinic thought they were getting treatment for bad blood. In 1944, the U.S. government conducts research on the effects of radiation on human beings. Subjects were not told that they were participated in the experiments. Experiments were conducted on cancer patients, pregnant women, and military personnel. In 1956, Saul Krugman, Joan Giles and other researchers conducted hepatitis experiments on mentally disabled children at The Willowbrook State School. They intentionally infected subjects with the disease and observed its natural progression. The experiments were approved by the New York Department of Health.

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