“The Other Side of Research in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, Claire McDaniel and Daniel Marchalik’s Entry on The Doctor’s Book Club

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In this entry on The Doctor’s Book Club, Dr. Daniel Marchalik and Claire McDaniel delve into the history and evolution of bioethics, and its impact on the individuals involved in Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 award winning non-fiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The Doctor’s Book Club was a column in The BMJ where Dr. Marchalik and McDaniel (who, at the time of publication, was a third year medical student at Georgetown University School of Medicine, participating in the Literature and Medicine Track) discuss themes at the intersection of literature and medicine, reaching an international audience of medical leaders.

They introduce the focus of Skloot’s book: Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American woman who died of aggressive cervical cancer in 1951. Her immortal cancer cells were taken without her or her family’s consent, and then used for experimentation that laid the foundations for countless medical discoveries, from the Salk polio vaccine to today’s cutting edge cancer therapies. “Yet the price for these advancements was paid by the Lacks family and by the families of others whose bodies were used to pave the way for science”.

“Neither Henrietta nor her family were ever made fully aware of the ways in which her tissue would be used for science. (…) Interactions with medical professionals were driven solely by researchers’ need to isolate the Lacks’s genetic identifiers”, they describe. Henrietta Lacks’ genetic material was at the center of controversy in 1963, when it was discovered that the chief virologist of Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center named Chester Southam and Emanuel Mandel, the director of medicine at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital (JCDH), were injecting a particularly virulent cancer cell line called HeLa (short for Henrietta Lacks) into patients under coercion or without knowledge or consent. These patients, as Lacks and her family, are amongst the many examples of the human toll of medical research.

The revelance of the HeLa cell lines for medical research, which has become one of the world’s premier biomedical products (a single vial of HeLa cells was once valued at $256) and has been the subject of over 60 000 scientific articles, contrasts with the Lacks family poverty and health problems. “So while the world continues to be made healthier by HeLa cells, Henrietta’s children remained too poor to access the medical treatments made possible by her cells”, Marchalik and McDaniels reflect.

“Skloot’s work exposes these and many other examples of the dual nature of medical research. Although the scientific world may take giant leaps forward, individuals involved in the research can often be left behind in its wake. There is no question that research must march on. The question is: how can we remain mindful of the lives involved?”, they conclude.

Read the entry in The BMJ.

Read other entries from The Doctor’s Book Club.