In February 1951, a woman named Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The cancer was aggressive and her health quickly deteriorated, until her ultimate demise in October 1951. Although Henrietta Lacks passed away on that day, not all of her was dead. A scientist named George Otto Gey succeeded in culturing (growing on a petri dish) the biopsied cervical cancer cells, provided by Lacks’ physician. He discovered that this lineage of cells could keep dividing and growing without stopping. In the human body, cells will eventually reach a limit of dividing and be destroyed. The cells from Henrietta Lacks, however, were immortal. Gey named this cell line HeLa, taking the first two letters of Lacks’ first and last names.
The HeLa cell line (and all other immortal cell lines since) have proven very useful in research as they give an infinite supply of identical cells, giving scientists a model template they can experiment on. The immortality of the HeLa cells is such that 60 years later, scientists are still using cells from that lineage – cells virtually identical to the cells taken from Henrietta Lacks (save for random mutations that happen in any cells). The cells are so well-adapted to unlimited growth that they are sometimes considered a laboratory “weed”, because it can easily invade another cell culture and completely take it over. One biologist even went as far as claiming that HeLa cells were no longer human, but instead a new species. He supported his claim with the fact that HeLa cells are self-sufficient and can reproduce on its own, and that it has a different genome (even chromosome numbers) to human cells due to the nature of cervical cancer.
The main issue with HeLa cells is the ethics behind it. At no point did Lacks or her family give permission to the doctor for him to donate her cells for research. Since her death, the cells were not only used for the purpose of pure research, but also commercialised. Unfortunately, medical ethics was not well-established at the time and asking the patient’s consent for such things was not common. The two major sides in this debate would be the unethical act of taking human tissue and using it without consent, versus the potential benefit it brings. For example, HeLa cells were used by Jonas Salk for his research that led to the development of the polio vaccine. It may be a stretch, but if those cells were not taken from Lacks, the development of the polio vaccine may have been delayed and countless more people would have suffered from a lifelong crippling illness. This is the great question in medical ethics: how much of an individual’s human rights can we afford to sacrifice for the needs of the many? Do the needs of the many really outweigh the needs of the few, or the one?