Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells.

Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells, known as HeLa cells, have been one of the most important tools in medicine for more than 60 years. They have been used in polio vaccine development, cloning and gene mapping. However, the story of the creation of these cells is tragic.

Henrietta Lacks, an African-American tobacconist and mother of five children, died of cervical cancer on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31. While being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital, two samples of her cervix, one healthy and one cancerous, were removed without her permission or knowledge. These cells were then given to Dr. George Otto Gay, who discovered that they could be kept alive and continue to grow indefinitely. This had never before been observed in human cells.

Dr. Gay was able to isolate one particular cell and create the first ever immortal cell line, which he named HeLa. Since then, these cells have been involved in thousands of medical discoveries, helped develop the polio vaccine, cloning and gene mapping. As of 2014, scientists have grown about 20 tons of HeLa cells, and nearly 11,000 patents related to HeLa cells have been granted.

However, Henrietta’s family never benefited from the commercial use of her cells. They never received compensation for her donation, and most of them could not afford health insurance. This led to a lengthy legal battle between Henrietta’s family and Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts-based company that commercialized the use of HeLa cells.

This week, the Lux family finally reached a settlement agreement with Thermo Fisher Scientific over the commercial use of the cells. But why does this case matter so much? The answer is that Henrietta’s cells were harvested without her permission or knowledge. This raises important ethical questions about medical research and the use of human cells.

Henrietta’s story came to light thanks to journalist Rebecca Skloot, who wrote a bestselling book on the subject, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The book emphasizes the importance of informed consent in medical research and the need for greater awareness of the ethical issues surrounding the use of human cells.

Dr. Roland Pattillo of Morehouse School of Medicine (USA) donated a headstone for Lacks after reading Sloot’s book. For decades, her grave remained unmarked. The book-shaped headstone bears the following inscription: “Henrietta Lax, August 01, 1920 – October 04, 1951. In memory of a phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touched the lives of many.” Henrietta Lacks (HeLa) is laid to rest here. Her immortal cells will forever help humanity. With eternal love and admiration, from your family. Thank you, Henrietta.”

In conclusion, Henrietta Lacks’ legacy is incredible, but also tragic. Her story emphasizes the importance of informed consent in medical research and the need for greater awareness of the ethical issues surrounding the use of human cells. Although her cells helped save countless lives and further medical research, her family was never able to benefit from the results. It is important that we continue to discuss these issues and find solutions that are fair and just for all concerned.

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