HeLa cells are an example of an immortal cell line, one which will keep reproducing beyond the normal controls that stop cellular growth. They are a topic of controversy and discussion, because the original cell sample cultured to grow them was taken without consent from a patient, Henrietta Lacks. The story of these cells illustrates some of the ethical concerns involved in tissue and cell cultures, as well as some missteps in the history of science. Tremendous breakthroughs in the sciences continue to be made courtesy of HeLa cells, highlighting their contribution to science despite their origins.
Henrietta Lacks died of an aggressive cervical cancer that invaded virtually her entire body in 1951. A common practice at the time, samples of the cancer cells were taken for study. Some cells were taken by a researcher who was attempting to cultivate immortal cell lines for scientific purposes. In the 1950s, the practice of taking routine tissue samples without consent from patients was not uncommon, and anonymizing the source wasn’t a primary concern. Hence, the cells were given the code name “HeLa” for “Henrietta Lacks.”
The family later learned of the use of the cells in scientific research, and were concerned that they had been used without consent. HeLa cells and the concerns that surrounded them touched upon several issues in medicine. One was the issue of using tissue samples without consulting patients, many of whom would freely donate if asked. Changes in how such samples are taken and handled, and in the processes used to collect consent, have increased the use of informed consent in research. Patients submitting biopsies for diagnostic purposes, for example, might be asked if they are willing to donate cells to research.
There has also been a historic distrust of medicine in some communities, particularly racial minorities. Henrietta Lacks was black, and some people felt that her story was part of a larger legacy of cases where people were exploited for medical research. Her family members were later asked to contribute blood for research purposes in circumstances that were somewhat unclear; some family members claim informed consent was not obtained and they thought they were receiving cancer tests, while clinicians say they were informed about the nature of the testing.
Nonconsensual testing on minority populations included activities like the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment and research into early dosages of birth control on Puerto Rican women, both of which had devastating consequences for their subjects. These studies were performed without the benefit of modern ethical review boards and protocols to protect the interest of patients. The history of such experimentation made some populations reluctant to trust scientists and research, which also contributed to public health problems like refusing treatment out of fear. Outreach on the part of the medical community to address the origins of these fears and provide information about measures being taken to prevent similar incidents was sparked in part by discussions about HeLa cells.
Research into the origins of HeLa cells highlighted some historical tensions in science between the need for research and the desire to protect the health and safety of patients and research subjects. Many scientists agree they were invaluable for scientific research. Discussions about their clouded origins can acknowledge their importance in science while helping researchers develop better methods for obtaining consent and documenting their practices.