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Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Book Review: So, Who is HeLa?

I wanted to share with you this book that I have finished reading. Like the author, I believe recognition must be given to the woman whose cells has saved countless lives. HeLa cell line was used to treat the first Polio vaccine in the 50's and it is still in use today for testing the activity of AIDS drugs and in particular cancer treatments. Without these cells, little would be known about the causes of cancer which is essential in finding appropriate treatments.

You may not have heard of Henrietta Lacks. I hadn't until I read this book, and I have been studying science for as long as I can remember. But what your teachers or lecturers don't tell you is whose cells are used in medical testing, what is the most used cell line and where did those cells come from? Of course they must be human cells with human DNA and human characteristics  - that makes it much easier to identify potential drugs in the early stages of drug development. Testing drugs in this way is called in vitro - a reaction occurring outside of the body without a blood supply and any other important cells, such as nerve cells, in which cells communicate with one another.  

 Let me introduce you to Henrietta Lacks. The woman who, in a sense has saved billions of lives. Henrietta died in 1952 following cervical cancer thought to be caused by syphilis. A biopsy was taken, before radium treatment of Henrietta's cervical tumour cells, but these cells were different to other biopsy's whether mortal (normal growth rate of human cells) or immortal (cancer cells that are rapidly growing). Given the right culture medium, the perfect balance of nutrients such as glucose, oxygen, ions and temperature, Henrietta's cells grew and doubled. At the time, this was a miraculous discovery because no one knew the perfect balance of nutrients needed for cells to grow and little was known on the causes of cancer. Henrietta's cells didn't just survive they grew and doubled. These cells are known as HeLa named according to the last two letters of the forename, and first two letters of the surname. 

No consent was authorized for the first biopsy, but following Henrietta's death permission was needed to take further biopsy's. Like today, when we give blood samples or have given birth along with the placenta - our cells are stored and there is no ethical conduct to authorize storage of these cells for use in medicine. Organ donor cards and forms are now widely in use and this is the ethical conduct needed to give permission to use any of the organs you wish to donate. 

Not much is known about Henrietta Lacks because scientists felt they didn't want to burden her family with news reporters and claimed the cells came from a woman named Helen Lane. A portion of the book ''The Immortal Life of Henrietta lacks'' has been donated into the Henrietta Lack's Foundation to help people with medical financial help in the USA and with tuition. 

Ethical conduct can be a tricky subject because we all have autonomy. Recently scientist in Heidelberg, Germany (click here to read article) have sequenced the entire genome of a HeLa cell and published it without asking consent from Henrietta's family. Although sequencing the genome would be beneficial in identifying markers for diseases, this action, without consent is degrading. It is like someone researching your entire past and future, the mistakes you have or will make and telling the entire world about it. 

If you would like to buy a copy (I would suggest a new copy so all proceeds go to the Henrietta Lacks foundation) Amazon are selling a copy for £5.27. 

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1 comment:

  1. That sounds really interesting, I don't know anything about Henrietta Lacks. Might have to pick myself up a copy as this sort of thing fascinates me.

    Lyndsay ♡
    Fizzy Peaches


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