A Lack Of Gratitude
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Politics and Activism

A Lack Of Gratitude

John Bruno

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A Lack Of Gratitude

Most probably do not know the story of Henrietta Lacks; her name does not dot the pages of the history books, as do other people who have done great things with their lives. Although, most of those people know that they did something worth writing down. But not Henrietta; originally born as Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia, she changed her name to Henrietta and married her first cousin, David Lacks, in 1941. The couple bore several children one of which was severely disabled due to the complications of incest. At the request of another family member, the family picked up and moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where they lived happily until 1951 when Henrietta was admitted to John Hopkins hospital complaining of intense abdominal pain. The attending physician diagnosed her with advanced cervical cancer, since virtually nothing was known about cancer at the time, the hospital gave her the usual treatment of radiation until she died in October of 1951. During her admittance to the hospital, doctors took two cervical cell samples without her consent.

After her death, her cancerous cell samples fell into the hands of medical researcher Dr. George Otto Gey. After studying Lack’s cells he noticed an abnormal quality in the cells; they could survive much longer in lab conditions than any other human cell sample ever tested. After discovering this, Gey isolated a single cell and replicated it until he had a living colony of human cells in his petri dish. This event served as the catalyst for the medical revolution that characterizes the late twentieth century and into the modern era. Due to the harnessing of Lack’s cells, countless medical boundaries were broken and new frontiers opened because of a poverty stricken, nameless woman. Numerous vaccines, such as the Polio vaccine, were synthesized as a result of having a non-exhaustible source of human cells to work with. Henrietta’s cells are also now the “standard” human cells from which researchers and doctors can draw from for their experiments.

There is, of course, the debate regarding the medical ethics that surround this story. During the time of Henrietta’s treatment, no consent was required to take tissue samples following a medical procedure, so there was no malpractice; although Henrietta left behind a rather extensive family that still calls Baltimore home. As well as the statute of patient confidentiality that permeates medical care today. So it raises a general question: Do “biological” and “genetic” property bare the same weight as what we know property to be, for example a home or automobile? It also raises a more detailed question, is the Lacks family entitled to compensation for the role that their biological and genetic property has played in the scope of modern medicine?

I believe the answer to both those questions is "yes," I hold firm that man is endowed to his biological property just as he is endowed to his life or his mind. As for the second question, I think the Lacks family should be compensated for the role their genetic property has played in the development of medicine. Just as an author or songwriter is paid in royalties when their intellectual property is used, I believe that the Lacks family should be rewarded royalties when their property is used.

You wont find her in any textbook, or any massive blockbuster, but you will find her when you go to get your flu shot, your polio vaccine, when you’re up late at night, reading about Ebola, or if you want to be a doctor or a nurse. Lacks should be in the back of your mind -- an impoverished, uneducated, but noble and proud woman, who battled cancer to the death and faded into the obscurity of history.

"HeLa Cells: A New Chapter in An Enduring Story." NIH Directors Blog. N.p., 07 Aug. 2013. Web. 21 Aug. 2015. .

Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 21 Aug. 2015. .

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