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  • Writer's pictureSwaha Chakraborty

Ongoing Debate: HeLa Cells - Progress V. Ethics

Earlier this week, my teacher introduced our class to a policy debate in biomedical research that had taken place a few years prior. The Henrietta Lacks Cell.

Much of the progress we have seen in science and medicine in the last several decades, can be attributed to the discovery of the HeLa cell, by Dr. George Gey in 1951. The cells were taken from a woman named Henrietta Lacks, who was suffering from cervical cancer. After her death, a sample of these cancer cells was retrieved from her body, for medical examination. However, this was done so without her consent or the consent of her family. Regardless, the sample was sent to Dr. George Gey's tissue lab without notifying Henrietta Lack's family. It wasn't long before he realized the promise these cells had for the future of scientific research. He had found the first 'immortal' human cell line.

To understand how Henrietta's cells differ from the average cell, we must review the basics of cell division. At the ends of a chromosome, there is a region of repetitive DNA sequence, which helps prevent the ends of the chromosome from becoming damaged or tangled. However, this region of DNA becomes slightly shorter each time a cell divides. This means that there will be a point when the telomeres become so short that the cell can no longer replicate, and the cell and the culture die. However, Henrietta's cells, have an active version of telomerase during mitosis (cell division). This means that the telomeres are copied over and over again, preventing them from shortening. This creates an infinite loop of replication, in which the cells do not die, thus creating the perfect culture of cells for scientific experimentation and observation.

Despite knowing the high value of the cells from the moment he observed them, Dr. Gey and Johns Hopkins University, have never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells. Instead, they have offered them freely for scientific research. However, the question is, did they ever have the right to distribute them in the first place? Did they ever have the right to take cells and DNA from another human being without their consent?

The case of Henrietta Lacks is an ongoing bio-ethics debate, quickly becoming a symbol of historical mistreatments committed against minority groups in the name of furthering science. While current ethics laws would obviously prevent such crimes from ever occurring, it's hard to determine whether we should be applying to the transgressions that occurred centuries ago. Similarly, the Nazi experiments regarding hypothermia can now be classified as cruel and torturous, but they may be used to save lives. Some modern scientists argue that, by using the conclusions of these experiments to further medicine and help more people, they are honoring the pain and suffering the victims of the experiments had to go through.

Furthermore, in the case of Hela cells, scientists are freely distributing cancer cells that contain the genotype of a real woman. This means that the family's genetic information was at one point free to access by the public.

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