Henrietta Lacks was a poor tobacco farmer who died in 1951 from cervical cancer. Doctors took samples from her tumor, samples that were unrelated to her medical care. They had been trying without success to regenerate human cells for years. Lacks’ were the first to continue to reproduce, and have never stopped. This is a medical miracle.
The cells, known to scientists as HeLa cells, have helped develop drugs and vaccinations for many diseases and illnesses. The cells have been in space, been bought and sold by the trillions, and helped with such important medical discoveries as the polio vaccine and in vitro fertilization.
Interesting, right? Too bad poor Henrietta is buried in an unmarked grave, with living family members so poor they can’t afford health insurance. Not only was her husband not informed about what would happen to his wife’s cells, but he, their children and their grandchildren have never seen one dime from their use. Of course, neither husband nor wife gave permission for the tissue to be harvested in the first place.
Henrietta’s husband didn’t find out for 25 years about his late wife’s miraculous contribution to science. The facts of the situation upset and confused her husband and their five children. Many people claim that Lacks deserves more credit and recognition, which is why a journalist named Rebecca Skloot has written a book about the Lacks family titled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
I think we all know how important cell testing is, but I also feel like scientists should understand that people are so much more than cells in a dish or test tube. Henrietta had a husband and a family, and they should have rights. Millions of dollars have been made off of the HeLa cells, yet the Lacks family has lived, and still lives, in poverty.
One of her sons said he doesn’t understand why his mother could be one of the most important people in science, yet he goes without health insurance. It seems like giving the family their due compensation at this point would be the right thing to do. I’m sure better late than never certainly applies to this situation when Lacks’ family members are struggling with medical debt, poverty and being uninsured.
HeLa cells are the cornerstone of a multimillion-dollar industry and this family should see some of that money. I’m all for medical advances that will be used to help us make important discoveries to treat illnesses and cure diseases, but people who give their tissue (willingly or unwillingly) should get acknowledgement and compensation. Doctors may refer to them as HeLa cells, but everyone should know about the woman behind the tissue sample.
Christi Aldridge is a senior strategic communication major from Hillsboro.