Science, Ethics, and HeLa Cells

A few years ago, I heard about Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I enjoy books that tell the stories behind the scenes, in a sense. I cannot do the book or the story justice in this short space, but I encourage you to read it (or watch the movie). This book explores the history of HeLa cells and the person behind those cells, as well as her family.

I began teaching AP Biology about five years ago. I was delighted to find HeLa Cells were a topic included in one of the AP Labs. Every year when I teach this lab, I find something new to share with my students. Early on, the focus was on the controversy of the story behind HeLa Cells. The collection of tissue from Mrs. Lacks holds much controversy. Did she provide consent? Was the potential use of her tissue and cells explained to her in advance? How could anyone have known they would be so amazing and beneficial? No one from Mrs. Lacks’ family knew of her cells existence until more than two decades after her death. Did they have the right to know? Why were these cells not kept anonymous? Companies made LOTS of money using and selling HeLa cells. Should the family be entitled to any of the profits? So many questions, particularly around ethics related to HeLa cells. This was an interesting conversation with students but never led to resolution or my own satisfaction that I had accurately conveyed the depth of this story. This year, though, I feel different. Though we talked about some of these issues, we changed our lens and realized there is an essential focus we should take when studying HeLa cells.

To my benefit, I found new material including videos about HeLa cells (this TedEd video was the one I chose to share in class) that helped with this shift in focus. HeLa cells have been used in over 74000 published research studies, contributed to vaccine development, used in Ebola and HIV research, and even sent into space! What I decided to focus on this year was the amazing contributions to science, medicine, and public health due to HeLa cells, and the gift of Henrietta Lacks.

By the end of our lesson, the students and I agreed the conversation about Henrietta Lacks’ story must be shared and her contribution to research and medicine must be honored and highlighted. HeLa cells must include the story of Henrietta Lacks. The connection between this story and public health and ethics is clear, and can lead to valuable conversations with students. But, we cannot lose sight of the incredible contributions Henrietta Lacks has given to medicine and science by virtue of giving her cells. This woman died too young, yet her cells continue to live. Let us keep her story alive as it continues to hold relevance, value, sacrifice, and hope.

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