This is a special shout out to the doctors and scientists out there. Everything we do in our fields has repercussions, often unexpected ones. Because of this, we strive to practice ethically to help prevent or minimize negative repercussions.
This discussion comes up specifically as an epiphenomenon of the release of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (my full review can be found here.) How one reacts to this book would, I suppose, depend on your perspective. A neighbor of the Lacks’s might react quite differently than a 22 year old doctoral student. And that’s really the point.
This book should be required reading for young scientists and medical students. Ethical practice is important because it recognizes the fact that many negative outcomes are unexpected, and that we as physicians and scientists cannot always anticipate these negative outcomes.
It’s good to see some of the comments appearing online about the book, even though many of these are from folks who haven’t read it (it’s being released on February 2nd). It’s natural to become defensive when your beliefs are questioned. Some of the more interesting comments appeared at Ed Yong’s place. To catch you up, HeLa is cell culture used in labs around the world. It was derived from a young woman named Henrietta Lacks, a woman dying of cervical cancer in a segregated hospital in 1950’s America.
I have to say I completely disagree. Cell lines are derived from Humans on a regular basis, I use cells from a man who died from colon cancer and a young girl who had neuroblastoma. What exactly is the issue here? Would this fuss be made if she hadn’t been black and poor? I doubt it.
Her cells were useful but they’re not unique and why should her family get money for her cells when other families don’t? I’ve read an article by the author of this book and it was self aggrandising overblown nonsense.
Trying to conflate the real racially motivated problems in the US with this type of cancer research is just insulting to everyone involved, in my opinion.
I also disagree. The hela cells would have been taken during the normal procedures to try and save her life. Neither the doctors or the hospital have to have consent to use the tissues removed from the body through cancer treatments, whether they are Black, White, rich or poor. Thousands of black and white men and women have had their cells used for research and have saved thousands of lives.