Saturday, February 13, 2010

HeLa reparations

Henrietta Lacks made an incredible contribution to biomedical science, HeLa cells.
Her cervical cancer cells have a very unusual property: they can grow in the lab indefinitely. Because of this property, they have been produced by the ton for various lab experiments.

The ethically squeamish issue comes in that Henrietta was not asked for her contribution when she was treated for cervical cancer in 1951, and neither she nor her family was told about it until much later.

I used to work in a lab doing basic immunology. I never touched the "wet" stuff, so I don't really know, but as far as I can remember, our lab didn't use HeLa cells, at least while I was there. But, the knowledge base that we worked off of was certainly informed by work done on Henrietta Lacks's cells.

I owe some of my livelihood to Henrietta and the Lacks family. So I made a modest donation to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation. I made it on the basis of an appeal by the author of a book about Henrietta Lacks, her cells, her family, and the Johns Hopkins physicians who interacted with her and her family over the years. The author claimed that the donations would go towards providing educational opportunities and medical care for Henrietta Lacks descendents. But the incorporation papers suggest a much broader reach.

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