Ethics & Human Nature
This week, I am thinking of the advancements in science and in the medical field. Looking back at how far we’ve come, I’d like to say that I am grateful for the doctor who used Henrietta Lack’s cells (HeLa cells) in experimental research. Though the patient herself will never know her grand contributions, I decided to pay tribute to her and how her legacy lives on for many of us who see patients benefit from cancer treatment on a regular basis.
For this creative practice, I located a microscope’s view of Multiphoton florescence image of HeLa cells with florescent protein (National Institutes of Health, 2013).
photo credit: Tom Deernick (National Institutes of Health, 2013)
In honor of the magnificent life and legacy of the HeLa cell line and Henrietta Lacks, I created an art piece, shown below:
This mixed media piece includes a colored pencil drawing that is an interpretation of the above microscope image. Crystals and beads were then placed and secured using an adhesive.
Onto ethics and human nature. Where are the boundaries in healthcare? How are they determined? What defines ethics and when did they begin to take priority over what science’s needs are?
These questions be difficult to answer in some respects, but rather simple now that boundaries in healthcare exist which are determined based upon what is deemed appropriate ethical practices to protect all patients. “To broaden the pubic and clinical agendas of bioethics, we will need to include the moral visions provided by notions of the good as well as strong notions of patients’ rights and entitlement to healthcare” (Benner, 2003). For Henrietta Lacks, such ethical practices didn’t exist. She was not offered equal access to treatment due to her economic status. This experience was not too far into our past. Over the past half century, advances in the medical field have abounded beyond what most could imagine. These days, cancer patients have access to treatments and medications which set a great number of them into remission. What many people don’t know is how we got here. What was done back then could not be done now.
When thinking back to the 1950’s definition of ethics, it may seem very different from today’s expectations in healthcare. Author Rebecca Skloot explains the life of Henrietta Lacks in her book on how HeLa cells came to be the number one mass produced cell culture in history (Conan, 2013). Where did those HeLa cells come from? Those special cells that were taken without consent to use in research ended up being the first cells to be used in cancer treatment trials. Because of scientists and researchers duplicating these cells to become the most used cell line in science, one would think the legacy of Henrietta Lacks would be one worth having and that her family would be compensated in some form for her magnificent contributions to society. Millions and millions of people have benefited from the use of HeLa cells around the globe, yet the Lacks family didn’t have access to mainstream healthcare. Some may say there are many ways to view this bit in history.
For me, I’d say that I am thankful for the use of HeLa cells because of their ability to bring our medical treatments to what they are in our current world. However, I do understand that some religions do not allow for the leaving behind of anything attached to the body (like tissue or other samples taken on routine). For example, Catholic Healthcare ethics do not align completely with mainstream bioethics of the common healthcare facilities in the United States where patient autonomy and patient choice are coveted (Steele, 2017). Religious traditions and beliefs are an area of concern for some patients with the medical field, as well as for patients who simply do not want to submit samples for other reasons. Regardless the reason, patients have the right to not allow permission for the use of samples in research. However, several case studies have shown that the label listing of a misidentified cell line does not discourage the use of it by scientists (Horbach & Halffman, 2017). If patient identifiers are removed, the use of samples is arguably considered ethical. For Lacks, the patient could be tracked and exposed for her cells being used in a highly successful scientific contribution to the medical field.
Now, think about this next question-
“are we holding back the abilities of science by following ‘ethical’ principles?”
Thanks for stopping by,
Benner, P. (2003). Enhancing patient advocacy and social ethics. American Journal of Critical Care: Current Controversies in Critical Care, 12(4) p.374-375. Retrieved November 4, 2017 from http://ajcc.aacnjournals.org/cgi/external_ref?link_type=PERMISSIONDIRECT
Conan, N. (2013). ‘Immortal’ cells of Henrietta Lacks live on in labs. NPR: Author Interviews. Retrieved November 3, 2017 from http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=171937818.
Horbach, S. M., & Halffman, W. (2017). The ghosts of HeLa: How cell line misidentification contaminates the scientific literature. Plos ONE, 12(10), 1-16. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0186281
National Institutes of Health. (2013). NIH, Lacks family reach understanding to share genomic data of HeLa cells. Retrieved November 4, 2017 from https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-lacks-family-reach-understanding-share-genomic-data-hela-cells
Steele, A. (2017). Teaching OB/GYN Residents Bioethics within a Catholic Healthcare Context. Issues In Law & Medicine, 32(2), 173-181.