Essay: Henrietta Lacks

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  • Subject area(s): Science essays
  • Reading time: 4 minutes
  • Price: Free download
  • Published on: January 7, 2019
  • File format: Text
  • Number of pages: 2
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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.

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