Henrietta Lacks and her contribution to Covid-19 vaccine

Henrietta Lacks’s cells were used to carry out research for the first polio vaccine, for in-vitro fertilization, for cancer, and most recently for studying the effects of SARS-CoV replication in the human body.
Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of just 31, and died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland(Twitter)
Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of just 31, and died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland(Twitter)
Updated on Dec 06, 2020 05:20 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | Byhindustantimes.com | Edited by Ayshee Bhaduri

Everywhere in the world the scientific community is racing against time to save humanity from the ongoing pandemic. Scientists and frontline workers are being hailed for their selfless service, but one individual who awaits her due is Henrietta Lacks — a black tobacco farmer who died at 31 from an aggressive form of cancer. Her cells, says American Virologist Angela Rasmussen, were used to study the effect of SARS-CoV on humans, providing inputs for the development of a vaccine.

Who is Henrietta Lacks and why is she important?

Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of just 31. At the time, many hospitals in the US practised segregating black patients from white patients, which reduced her options for seeking treatment. She ended up at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, in a ward located down the hall from George Gey, a researcher who had been attempting to grow human cells in his lab for decades. Her doctor sent some of her cells to Gey without her consent, changing the course of medicine forever.

Lacks’s cell had the ability to divide and replicate indefinitely, whereas normal human cells are able to do that around 50 times, making it easier for researchers to grow the culture of identical cells quickly. Soon scientists all over the world started using her cell lines for furthering their research. They were used to carry out research for the first polio vaccine, for in-vitro fertilization, for cancer, and most recently for studying the effects of SARS-CoV replication in the human body. Scientists began to dub the cell line cultivated from her as HeLa, in her honour, but for the longest time, her own family was not aware of her contribution.

What are the ethical issues behind HeLa cells?

Journalist Rebecca Skloot was the first one to connect the dots and trace her DNA 50 years later, raising questions on ethics and racial injustice. HeLa cells brought in enormous profits for biotech companies but none of that ever benefited her family and her community. As Covid-19 wreaks havoc on America’s racial minorities, scientists are being forced to confront the historically unequal treatment meted out to blacks and other minorities.

Cells are also derived from elective abortions, one such cell line actively used in vaccine research in the past is the HEK-293, a human embryo that was selectively aborted in the Netherlands, much to the dismay of the Catholic leaders in North America. This group urged the US Food and Drug Administration to instead provide incentives for Covid-19 vaccines that do not use fetal cell lines.

The HeLa cells, however, spell out a different set of questions and possibilities. While asking the scientific community to not disregard the many contributions blacks have made over the years, also brings up the prospect of ‘restorative justice’, according to Yolonda Wilson, a bioethicist at Howard University in Washington. Lacks’s descendants who recently marked her 100th anniversary of her birth in August have expressed similar hopes.

Once vaccination commences in full swing, a chance to correct a historical wrong will present itself.

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