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Lawsuit re: HeLa Immortal Cells
Why are human cells used in shots and pills?
August 1, 2023, a lawsuit was settled regarding the estate of a black woman born in 1920. This suit received very little attention in the mainstream media, but it is closure of another chapter of an important legacy.
The estate sued Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. on October 4, 2021, 70 years after her death. The suit alleged that the use of the HeLa cell line, which was created using cells that were taken in 1951 from the diseased cervix of a black woman without consent. In that suit, Thermo Fisher Scientific was accused of profiting from the sale of the cells for decades from the cells extracted without her consent, citing a “racially unjust medical system.”
Coming full circle, this week the family and the company reached a “confidential settlement” this week outside the court. At a news conference, family members and their attorneys said the settlement will help them in their efforts to keep Lacks’ legacy alive. Coincidentally, the settlement occurred on Henrietta’s 103rd birthday.
The woman at the center of the legal action was Henrietta Lacks. She died from an aggressive form of cervical cancer at the young age of 31, leaving five young children behind. She was buried in an unmarked grave in her childhood hometown of Clover, Virginia.
But before she died, a surgeon had taken two samples of the cervical tumor and put a few of the cells into a petri dish. Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive for decades, but they all died within a matter of days. These cervical cells were different: they replicated an entire generation of chromosomes and cells every 24 hours – in perpetuity. Because they never stopped dividing, they were the first cells to be given the designation of being ‘immortal.’ The cells, which became known as the HeLa cell line, are the most extensively used human cell lines in medicine and medical research today.
The family first learned about the cells in 1973 when a scientist contacted family members to obtain their genetic material and blood samples to extend the cell line research. Over the years, when the family inquired about the HeLa cells, they were largely ignored.
The BBC did a documentary on Henrietta Lacks in 1998. The filmmaker, Rebecca Skloot, later wrote the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which inspired Oprah Winfrey’s 2017 movie adaptation.
In Skloot’s book she describes how the cells have been used over the last 60+ years:
The HeLa cells, have been used in research into the cause and suppression of cancer. They have been used to develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia chemotherapeutics, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease and for developing vaccines, including polio, influenza, and the Covid-19 jabs. They have been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular of working in sewers.
HeLa cell chromosomes and proteins have been studied with incredible precision and have been used for gene cloning and gene mapping. They have been shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world and have even been on the first space mission to see the effects of zero gravity.
As of 2021, it has been estimated that HeLa cells have been used in nearly 75,000 research studies. Additionally, research involving HeLa cells has been described in more than 110,00 scientific publications. This chart lists many of the papers, by decade.
Incredibly, Henrietta was not publicly acknowledged until 2010 when Johns Hopkins released a statement regarding the HeLa cell line. They acknowledged that at the time the cells were taken, academic medical centers did not generally obtain informed consent for cell or tissue donations. Further, they supported the laboratory who grew the cells because they never patented or benefited financially from the cell line.
Some large organizations have recognized Lacks’ contribution to science. One research institution, Morgan State University in Baltimore, granted Lacks a posthumous honorary degree. In 2010, Dr. Roland Pattillo, an OB/gyn of Morehouse School of Medicine and his wife, Pat donated a headstone for her unmarked grave.
The Lacks’ story one of list of medical abuses targeting racial and economic classes by medical researchers. As a black women, Johns Hopkins was one of the few hospitals that would give her access to healthcare during the 1950s. However, that didn’t give them the right to collect her cells without her permission, a fact the family has been fighting for decades.
At one point, scientists published her medical records and the full genome of the HeLa cells without consent, which was quickly protested and removed. Later, the NIH and the Lacks family announced an agreement that allowed HeLa-derived genomic data to be deposited into NIH’s existing dbGap database while addressing the privacy concerns of the Lacks family. Researchers can apply for controlled access to the whole genome HeLa cell data. This gave the family some oversight of the Lacks’ genome and they would be acknowledged in scientific papers.
Another story of racially motivated medical mistreatment is the 1932 Tuskegee study, in which black men who were found to be infected syphilis were not offered treatment despite penicillin being the readily available treatment of choice. Details of Tuskegee can be found here at this well written summary.
These are two prominent examples; there are many others. If you are interested in this dark part of American medical history this book, “Medical Apartheid” reviews experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times through 2008 (when the book was published.)
Many older African Americans remain wary of medical research. In 2010, researchers studied the mistrust issue and found it to be multifaceted. Factors such as cultural issues, specific attitudes, and low health literacy all contribute, but the mistrust primarily stems from historical events, including the Tuskegee syphilis study. and is reinforced by a health system that continues to discriminate against racial, low-income, and minority subgroups.
In response, author Skloot established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation which “seeks to promote public discourse concerning the role that contributions of biological materials play in scientific research and disease prevention.”
The Foundation also supports research into issues related to informed consent and disparities in access to health care, particularly among minorities and underserved communities.
Other Immortal Cell lines
Immortalized cells are either tumorous cells that do not stop dividing or cells that have been artificially manipulated to replicate indefinitely and can thus be cultured over several generations. The most common immortalized cell lines are HeLa cells and human embryonic kidney cells (HEK-293T). They are often used in research because they offer several advantages: they are relatively inexpensive, easy to use, provide an unlimited supply of material, and bypass ethical concerns associated with the use of primary cells isolated directly from a human donor or from animal tissue.
American Type Culture Collection (ATCC) and Cell Biology Collection consists of over 3,600 cell lines from over 150 different species. The major disadvantage to using immortalized cells is that these cells cannot be considered “normal” or “normal replacements” because they do not express normal cell senescence (death) pathways that are found in normal, living cells.
Another significant disadvantage with cell lines is contamination with other cell lines and mycoplasma. This has been known since the early 1970s when it was determined that the majority of cell lines used around the world were contaminated with HeLa cells. That dismal fact hasn’t changed in 40+ years
Additionally, mycoplasma contamination can persist undetected in cell cultures for long periods of time and cause extensive alterations in gene expression and cell behavior. Based on submissions to cell banks, it was estimated as far back as 2012 that between 15–35% of cell lines were estimated to be contaminated with mycoplasma.
This means the results seen in the studies using immortal, contaminated cells are probably not anywhere close to what would be seen if normal, mortal, non-contaminated cells had been used And yet, doctors and scientists accept these variables and publish their results anyway.
Fetal Cell Lines
There are 10 cell lines that are made from cells of aborted fetal tissues. They are used in various vaccines. You can find the chart here. The chickenpox, shingles, hepatitis A and MMR vaccines were developed using aborted fetal cell lines, MRC-5 and WI-38.
Doctors who have been administering the vaccines for years have never bothered to check the ingredients (section 11 of the insert). Here you find that the vaccine contains “residual DNA and proteins” and “components” of “MRC-5”, “WI-38” (or both) “human diploid cell lines.”
Our course at Learning4You.org on “foreign proteins” goes into detail about the fetal cells lines and other foreign proteins found in vaccines.
Stronger Rules Needed
Stronger rules are needed to govern the collection and use of all human, animal and immortal lines in medications and vaccines. NIH has discussed changing the Common Rule, the US government policy on funded research, so that consent would be required from anyone regarding any biological sampling, even if the specimens are de-identified. But that has yet to be completed.
The Lacks family does not want to see an end to HeLa cell use. Despite the cells being collected in a bad way, the family is proud that Henrietta’s tragedy and her cells have been used to advance many areas of medical care.
To learn more about the extensive details, I recommend Rebecca Skloot’s book, “The Immortal Live of Henrietta Lacks.” There you will find that her cells came from a real woman. She loved to dance. She loved spaghetti. She was a stylish dresser and always wore red nail polish. Her door was always open to anyone in need. She had a family and her life is a legacy, an important story and person to remember.