Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Dark Background to Immortal Cells

By Michael Cook

The origins of human cell lines used in some of the world’s greatest medical discoveries have been called into question.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

There is something quite mysterious about our attachment to our bodies. Even small tissue samples have an almost sacred value – not to the scientists who use them, perhaps, but to the people whose genes they carry.

Nothing illustrates this better than the intensely moving 2010 best-seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who was 31 when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Cells from her tumour became the first human cells cultured continuously for use in research. HeLa cells have helped to make possible some of the most important medical advances of the past 60 years, including modern vaccines, cancer treatments and IVF techniques. They are the most widely used human cell lines in existence.

There is no question about their usefulnesss – but were they ethical? Her family only learned that their mother’s cells had been scattered around the world in 1973. Their complaints were ignored for many years – after all, they were only poor, uneducated black folk.

It was only earlier this year that the US National Institutes of Health negotiated an agreement. All researchers who use or generate full genomic data from HeLa cells must now include in their publications an acknowledgement and expression of gratitude to the Lacks family.

But despite all the publicity, scientists...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.