Medical Research With or Without Informed Consent
In 1952, paralytic polio peaked in the United States with 21,000 reported cases and numerous deaths. It was in February 1952; Jonas Salk developed the world’s first polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh and by testing it on cultured “HeLa” cells, proved it to be effective for distribution by 1955. The cells he used were collected from a poor black tobacco farmer named Henrietta Lacks, born August 1st, 1920 in Roanoke Virginia. In January 1951, Henrietta went to the gynecology clinic at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore Maryland and complained of having a “knot” in her womb. A malignant tumor, about the size of a nickel, was discovered on her cervix and when she returned the next week to receive radium treatments, Henrietta signed a consent form for the procedure. Before her treatment began, her doctor collected cancerous and healthy tissue from her cervix and sent them to Dr. George Gey. As head of tissue culture research at John Hopkins, Dr. Gey had spent three decades determined to grow the first immortal human cells in hope of finding the cause and cure for cancer. All cells collected for a culture were labeled using the first two letters of the patients first and last name, therefore Henrietta Lacks culture was called HeLa. Henrietta’s healthy cells died within days, but her cancer cells continued to multiply and those cells are still alive today. Dr. Gey’s successful growth of the HeLa cells was one of the biggest medical breakthroughs of the 20th century. Although doctors collected Henrietta’s cells without her knowledge, the research performed on the HeLa cells and subsequent medical advances resulted in benefitting all of humanity, which justifies the unethical decision not to provide informed consent. Some people believe that because Henrietta never gave informed consent to collect her cells, that the doctors acted unethically. It wasn’t until 1973, the Lacks family found out that Henrietta’s...
Cited: Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway
Paperbacks, 2011. Print.
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