By Michigan Science Center Educator and Biologist Kevin Farmer
Last month, HBO premiered a new film, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This film is based on Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 New York Times bestselling book of the same name. It chronicles the story of Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, as she and reporter Rebecca Skloot work to uncover the truth about who Henrietta was and how her cells were used in research without her consent.
In 1951, a cancer biopsy was performed on Henrietta, who was suffering from cervical cancer. Her cells became the first human cells to successfully survive beyond a few days in a laboratory setting. These “immortal cells” later became instrumental in many major medical advancements beginning in the mid-1950s until today. The hearty nature of these cells allowed researchers to perform more in-depth studies. Henrietta’s cells were instrumental in the research that lead to the polio vaccine, early findings on how zero gravity would affect human tissue, early cancer treatments, and much more.
Although Henrietta’s cells have been instrumental to our current understanding of medicine, it is important to remember that the cells were acquired and used without her consent. The cells were acquired before the Belmont Report was written in 1979, which first regulated and laid out ethical standards for human medical testing. The report was further amended in 1991 by what is called the Common Rule, which states that no human tissue can be used for medical research without the individual’s consent – unless the name and any information identifying the individual are removed.
While not perfect, our society has made a lot of changes since the early 1950s. It is important to remember that these changes came about when people started asking, “why am I not involved in decisions regarding my own health care?” Since then, we have begun to re-evaluate what we find important and to encourage patient autonomy.
The scientific process is both a social endeavor and an academic one. Societal norms – as well as facts – determine how we use the knowledge we gain from research. Because of this, it’s important to discuss scientific content through the scope of our society.
These discussions can also serve as an equalizer when it comes to science discussions. By getting many different individuals to weigh in on research projects and policies that are connected to science, we can become better informed.
Join us for our Science & Society Forum on June 9, 4 – 7 p.m. to discuss these issues and learn more about the emerging field of Synthetic Biology. Click here to learn more and to purchase tickets.