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What Is the Controversy Surrounding HeLa Cells?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On Feb 15, 2014

@MrsPramm - Actually HeLa cell contamination is a problem in a lot of labs, because they grow a little bit too well. They have been known to ruin experiments because they appeared where they weren't supposed to be.

I've even read of attempts to name them a separate, new sub species, seeing as they have so many differences to average human cells now and don't just grow where humans tell them to grow. Which I find to be a creepy idea.

By MrsPramm — On Feb 15, 2014

@Fa5t3r - Well, seeing as the HeLa cell line is immortal, there probably wasn't all that much they could do with it commercially, because it would have continued growing when they gave it to other labs, who could have then passed it on themselves. Since they didn't patent it, I don't see how they could have prevented that.

The cells themselves are just cells. But I do think that in this case the treatment of patients and issues of confidentiality and body autonomy are at stake and should be addressed. The HeLa cell line has helped so many people over the years through making different kinds of research possible. But the ends should not justify the means, because it opens us up to saying it's OK for doctors to do whatever they want without permission.

By Fa5t3r — On Feb 14, 2014

They didn't just take the cells without her consent, they tried to cover it up afterwards by claiming that HeLa stood for another name (I think it was Helen Lane or something like that) so that they could avoid paying any kind of reparation. It's not like they were just giving these cells to other scientists out of the goodness of their hearts, or for the sake of research. It was definitely a commercial operation, so at the very least her family deserved compensation, even if the chance to ask permission had passed.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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