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Cypress College Hela Cells and Henrietta Lacks Discussion

Cypress College Hela Cells and Henrietta Lacks Discussion

Question Description

I’m working on a biology discussion question and need guidance to help me learn.

We learned a little about cells in the first chapter. In the last discussion forum, we learned something about cancer cells and the different ways we are trying to fight them. Now that you have an understanding of the structure and function of human cells, let’s use that knowledge to dive deeper into the topic bioethics (the application of ethics (Links to an external site.) to the scientific medical field and its relationship to healthcare). Another way to think of bioethics is the common idea that just because we (scientists) can do something, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should or that it will be align with public opinion and/or societal principles.

With all of the recent medical advancements that have been made in cancer research and treatments, scientists are sometimes embroiled in ethical controversies over the use of these new methodologies if they run counter to what some people think of as a moral practice. The field of study known as bioethics evaluates the moral principles of carrying out certain science-based techniques in biomedical research. After all, it is not a scientist’s place to tell people how to think or act, but rather to provide them with sound, evidence-based facts upon which to make their own decisions.

However, not everyone has the same moral beliefs and not everyone will agree on what is an ethical medical practice or not. Not to mention the fact that public perception and opinion can change over time. Hence, controversies can develop over certain types of medical research. One such case involves the use of an immortal strain of cancer cells known as HeLa cells.


HeLa cells are a specific set of cancerous cells extracted from a woman named Henrietta Lacks in 1951 and successfully cloned in the lab. Once these cells were reproduced in large numbers, they were able to be used in numerous biomedical research and treatment breakthroughs throughout the world – many of which you may have already directly or indirectly benefited from! Check out this detailed list and timeline of all the medical advancements (Links to an external site.) that would not have been possible without the use of HeLa cells.

Watch the following video on the use of HeLa cells in medical research to better understand these amazing medical marvels.

Henrietta Lacks

While we have HeLa cells to thank for all of the above medical advancements, for many years – decades in fact – no one knew where HeLa cells actually came from. The cancer patient from whom the cancerous HeLa cells were extracted (and named after) in 1951 was a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Her life and identity were mostly lost to medical history until some scientists tried contacting the Lacks family in the 1970s to do some additional genetic analysis. Read through this brief biography of Henrietta Lacks from the Biography Channel.

Bioethical Controversy

To understand the controversy behind HeLa cells, it’s important to understand the timeline of Henrietta Lack’s story:

  • At age 30, Henrietta went to Johns Hopkins hospital for abdominal pain (the only one available to black patients at the time).
  • During radiation treatments, samples of Henrietta’s cervix were removed without her permission & given to Dr. George Gey, who replicated them in his medical lab.
  • These cells eventually became the immortal HeLa cell line, the most used cell line in biomedical research.
  • In 1951, Henrietta died from metastasized cervical cancer.
  • Henrietta’s 5 children grew up not knowing their mother or exactly how she died.
  • The Lacks family did not know about HeLa cells until the 1970s & did not understand what they were or how they could exist.
  • In the 1980s, the Lacks family medical records were published without their consent.
  • In 1990, a California court ruled that a person’s discarded tissue & cells are not their property & can be commercialized.
  • In 2013, the HeLa cell genome (entire DNA code) was published without the Lacks family’s permission.
  • In 2013, an agreement was announced between the Lacks family & the National Institutes of Health that gave the family some control over access to the cells’ DNA code & acknowledgement in scientific papers.

In essence, the Lacks family had no idea that Henrietta’s cells were still “alive”, let alone that they were being used in research projects all over the world. Once the family became aware of the existence of HeLa cells and all of the medical innovations they made possible, several bioethical controversies became apparent:

  • Was it “unethical” for researchers to take (and profit from) Henrietta’s cells without her permission?
  • Should the Lacks family be given financial compensation in return for use of her cells?
  • How should society balance the needs of scientific research versus the ethical rights of individuals?

Read this brief overview of the controversy behind HeLa cells from the Smithsonian magazine. For further information the controversy of HeLa cells, you may be interested in reading this NPR story and interview with the author of the book: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”.

Discussion Post Requirements

For your summary(5-7 sentences) of this discussion post, I would like you to write a discussion post that is a personal reflection addressing the following two issues. You may use Henrietta Lack’s story as part of your discussion.

    • If you discovered that tissue was removed from your body at some point in the past and went on to significantly benefit science and research, would you feel the need to be compensated somehow?
    • What do you think is more important: a person’s personal rights over their own tissue or contributing to science and research for the benefit of society?

Write comments(3-5 sentences) on 3 of your peer’s summary.

Use the rubics below to guide your posts.


Advanced (5)

Proficient (4)

Basic (3)

Not there yet


Not there at all (0)

Well-developed ideas; introduces ideas, and stimulates discussion

Developing ideas; sometimes stimulates discussion

Ideas are there but not fully developed; does not stimulate much discussion

Poorly developed ideas which do not add to the discussion

Does not enter the discussion

Interacts more than 2 times with other students and instructor

Interacts at least 2 times with other students and instructor

Interacts at least once with other students or instructor

Does not interact with other students or instructor

Does not enter the discussion

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