I beg to differ with letter writer Ada Hamosh from Towson who argues that nothing wrong was done to Henrietta Lacks in the use of her discarded cancer tissue to make “HeLa” cells (”The cells of Henrietta Lacks made medical history, obtaining them wasn’t wrong,” Oct. 19). Her family, living in humble circumstances in Baltimore, didn’t know for the longest time about her contribution to the vast and lucrative global biotechnology industry, to its scientists and researchers and its network of profiteers.
Her cells have been used in virology to study the poliomyelitis virus and most recently, the SARS CoV 2 virus, leading to the development of vaccines for both. Regarding vaccines for the latter, as WHO Director Tedros Ghebreyesus says, the medical technologies developed from the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks have not been shared equitably around the world. Henrietta Lacks was a poor African American woman from Baltimore, and I am sure it wouldn’t make her happy to know that from her cancer cells came the science to make the mRNA vaccines, yet only 5% of Africans have been vaccinated against COVID-19, a majority of them being poor and Black, like herself.
True, HeLa cells are immortal and miraculous, and Henrietta’s descendants are no doubt happy her cells have benefited mankind in manifold ways, but the modern biotechnology industry is not a purely altruistic, non-profit venture.
Biotechnology is big business with patents and copyrights galore bringing large monies to scientists, pharmaceutical companies and investors. The HeLa cells have spun off so much interesting science and astonishing discoveries that they can be considered unique for their therapeutic as well as monetary value. Not to share that wealth with her family is absolutely avaricious and callous and it devalues Henrietta Lacks.
Though no funds were collected for their generation and distribution for decades, the original HeLa cells have spawned multiple cell lines that have reaped billions. A percent of that should go to her descendants on an ongoing basis. Since Ms. Lacks was never asked and hence never gave permission for her tissue to be used in myriad experiments — because such permission was not the scientific ethos of the day — that is all the more reason to compensate her African American descendants.
As letter writer Ada Hamosh says, the use of discarded tissue for research is a routine part of clinical consent for surgery now. I have had a few surgical procedures but I have never had this explained to me clearly by anyone consenting me for the surgeries. It is on the consent form but it is hardly ever articulated well.
Science is neither incorruptible nor just. In the case of Henrietta Lacks, it deserves to have its feet held to the fire.
Usha Nellore, Bel Air
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