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Ethical Issues Around Medical-related Engineering

A Discovery Out of Accident

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a young mother of five, sought medical treatment for vaginal bleeding at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. A gynaecologist named Dr. Howard Jones discovered a large malignant tumour on her cervix during an examination. The hospital was one of the few at the time that treated African Americans who were poor.

Mrs. Lacks began receiving radium treatments for her cervical cancer, the best medical option available at the time. During a biopsy, a sample of her cancer cells was retrieved and sent to Dr. George Gey’s nearby tissue lab. For years, Dr. Gey had collected cells from all patients who came to the hospital with cervical cancer, regardless of race or socioeconomic status. However, each sample he collected would quickly die in his lab. To his amazement, Mrs. Lacks’ cells were unique in that they doubled every 20 to 24 hours, unlike any other cells he had encountered.

Henrietta Lacks and her Husband (Source: Smithsonian Magazine)

Today, these remarkable cells are known as “HeLa” cells, named after the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ first and last names. They are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones, and viruses on cancer cell growth without conducting experiments on humans. They have played a significant role in the development of polio and COVID-19 vaccines, the study of the human genome, and the understanding of how viruses work.

Despite Mrs. Lacks’ passing in 1951 at the age of 31, her cells continue to have a significant impact on the world. The section below gives some more specific details about the contributions.

Contributions of Henrietta Lacks Cells

HeLa cells have enabled scientists around the world to make great leaps in science and medicine. This list highlights five remarkable contributions to the genetic engineering/bioengineering field.

Polio Eradication
Jonas Salk had developed a polio vaccine in the early 1950s but was struggling to find a way to test it in field trials as traditionally used rhesus monkey cells were too expensive for such a large-scale study. In 1952, HeLa cells were found susceptible to, but not killed by polio, making them an ideal source of host cells.
Improved cell culture practices
During the mass production and distribution of HeLa cells for polio vaccine testing at Tuskegee University, lead researchers Brown and Henderson pioneered new cell culture protocols.
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Chromosome counting
Rebecca Skloot describes in her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, how a lab mix-up in Texas in 1953 accidentally enabled researchers to see and count each chromosome clearly in the HeLa cells they were working with.
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Genome mapping
Harris and Watkins created the first human-animal hybrids in 1965 by fusing HeLa cells with mouse cells.
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Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines
In the 1980s, Henrietta’s cells were found to contain HPV-18 by Harald Zur Hausen, who later went on to win a Nobel Prize for his discovery linking HPV and cervical cancer.
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Some Last Thoughts

Johns Hopkins has never profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells, and they do not own the rights to the HeLa cell line. Instead, they have freely and widely offered the cells for scientific research

Johns Hopkins acknowledges and participates in efforts to raise awareness of Henrietta Lacks’ life and story. After reviewing their interactions with Mrs. Lacks and her family over more than 50 years, they recognize that they could have done more to inform and work with the Lacks family out of respect for their privacy and interests. While the collection and use of Mrs. Lacks’ cells for research was legal and acceptable in the 1950s, such a practice would not occur today without a patient’s consent.

From an engineering perspective, the HeLa cells have been instrumental in developing a wide range of medical technologies, including developing the polio vaccine, cancer treatments, and in vitro fertilisation techniques. HeLa cells have been used to study the effects of radiation, toxins, and drugs and to develop tissue engineering and organ transplantation technologies.

However, using HeLa cells also raises questions about who owns biological materials and how they should be used. Should patients have the right to control their biological materials, or should they be considered communal resources that can be used for the greater good? How can researchers ensure that patients are fully informed about using their biological materials and that their privacy is protected?

The Henrietta Lacks case highlights the need for clear guidelines and regulations regarding using human tissue for research. It also emphasizes the importance of informed consent and the need for greater transparency and communication between researchers and patients. While the contributions of HeLa cells to the engineering field are significant, we must also consider the ethical implications of their use and work towards a more equitable and transparent approach to using biological materials for research.


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