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Henrietta Lacks, unwitting supercell donor, finally receives justice

Ronald Mitchell
Henrietta Lacks, unwitting supercell donor, finally receives justice
Doctors used Henrietta Lacks’ cells to create polio and HIV vaccines and to develop in vitro fertilization.

Justice has finally been served for the family of Henrietta Lacks.

Last week, the Lacks family reached a settlement with Thermo Fisher Scientific, 70 years after doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital stole Henrietta Lacks’ cells without her consent or knowledge.

Lacks, a mother of five, had a very aggressive cervical cancer tumor that ultimately took her life. She was only 31. The biopsy taken from her would eventually become the first immortalized human cell line, named the HeLa Cells after parts of her first and last name.

It would become one of the most important cell lines in medical research.

Most cells divide around 40 to 60 times before they mutate enough to fail to function properly and are naturally killed off. There are two proteins in cells that act as sentinels, making sure cells don’t accumulate mutations and stop them from dividing after a set number of cycles. Lacks’ cancer cells contained a certain type of HPV (HPV18) protein that attacked those sentinels and allowed her cells to divide essentially forever. Her cells are living to this day in laboratory test tubes, and they’ve made roughly 70,000 studies possible.

The medical establishment dismissed the ethical ramifications in the face of the positive outcome of a medical breakthrough. For them there are always benefits and burdens in medical research that should be shared among patients and researchers, and this cash settlement via lawsuits seems unjust.

They would dismiss this theft because when the biopsy was taken in 1951, the practice of not getting a patient’s consent was common.

Lacks and her family were poor tobacco farmers, one step away from sharecropping in a segregated world in which profound racial oppression was a daily aspect of their lives. It is disingenuous to assume that she would voluntarily consent to partake in the “benefits” and burdens of this medical research.

But given our medical profession’s storied historic of treatment of Black patients, this is another continuance of the racist patterns of the past and must be questioned, litigated and, in  Lacks’ case, compensated.

The exploitation of Black bodies is as American as apple pie. The U.S. medical profession is filled with unbridled exploitation. That includes the work of James Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” who developed tools and pioneered his surgical techniques on enslaved Black women without anesthesia in the 1840s. He felt that his subjects did not require anesthesia because it was believed that Black women had a higher threshold for pain.

The Tuskegee syphilis experiments that began in 1932 and persisted until 1972 were not discontinued until a reporter discovered this insidious practice and initially exposed it through the proper channels. When it was officially allowed to continue, that same reporter leaked the story to the press, and the public’s outrage forced the U.S. government to shut it down.

The doctors had reasoned that since the experiment had gone on for so long, they would wait until the last survivors died. What an inhuman and privileged point of view for medical professionals to have as late as 1972. This proves that the medical community cannot always be trusted to do the right thing, even when confronted with their own inhumanity.

Ever since Black people were enslaved and brought to this country, our bodies have been treated as a market commodity, an expendable resource to be exploited. In the case of Henrietta Lacks, they extracted “miracle cells” from her body for free and without her consent to enrich themselves, their hospitals, biomedical corporations and the entire medical establishment. 

To quote Lacks’ granddaughter Jeri Lacks, “Her cells were used to develop the polio vaccine and to treat HIV, and in creating in vitro fertilization. She is a person who continues to give life, and to preserve life, no matter what your race, your age, your social circumstances, she continues to improve your life.”

Finally, on Aug. 1, the medical establishment’s racist and unethical practices were put on notice. And the benefits that Lacks unwittingly supplied are finally partially redistributed to her offspring and family. This settlement is an example of justice being served and is a reason to rejoice.

editorial, HeLa Cells, Henrietta Lacks