Henrietta Lacks Multi-Billion Cells

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Medical progress is heavily reliant on the utilization of human cells and tissue. Cells and tissues are used for analysis and later use in diseases such as polio and cancer, as well as medical techniques such as assisted fertilization and gene mapping. The selection and use of certain cells and tissues from individuals are beneficial for medical advancement, but it raises ethical concerns (Entine, Jon). One such risk is the possibility of researchers taking and profiting from such body cells and tissues without the knowledge of those affected. The story of Henrietta Lacks, as told in Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 novel The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, delves into this debate (Skloot, Rebecca). The fact that Henrietta’s cells were taken without her knowledge and then used to in medical advances up is an area of concern, and so is the reality that her cells have continued to earn a lot of money, none of which ever benefitted Lacks or has been useful to her impoverished family. In a period that lasted over twenty years, the family never knew that her cells were being used (Skloot, Rebecca). Her family is currently claiming compensation for the use of her cells, (McDaniels, Andrea ). The questions begging for answers are two: What is the value of Henrietta’s cells? Should Henrietta or her family have been informed adequately that her cells had been taken and preserved and; Should she or her family have been compensated for the same? This essay delves into this controversy to primarily seek the value of human cells.

Human Tissue Possession and Use in Biomedical Study

The human body and its tissues have been studied for a long time, dating back to ancient Greece. However, when the Roman Empire fell, this complicated research on anatomy almost stopping them entirely with the use of cadavers made illegal. In the 15th century, researchers once again started to study human tissue without fear, a tradition that continues to date. The four acceptable sources for specimens include prospective tissue, excess tissue, cadaveric tissue, and reproductive tissue, (Allen, M. J. et al.). In the case of Henrietta Lacks, excess tissue was extracted for diagnosis. It was this tissue that has become a valuable and controversial research resource.

In the laboratory, medical researcher’s laboratory-grown human cells are used to study finer details on the working of cells and test various theories. In 1951, a researcher at Johns Hopkins in Maryland created the first human cell line that was ‘immortal’ using cervical cancer tissue samples from Henrietta. He ar cells are immortal since they can propagate indefinitely, be iced up for decades, separated into different clusters and shared amongst researchers. It was these cells that have become famous in medical research and without which; much of the gains realized today would not have been achieved (Bley, Elizabeth).

The Worth of the Human Body

Without the human body, human life as we know it would not be the way we know it. For this reason, the body is respected and dignified. Its commercial value is also appreciated. There are laws in place that protect both those who are alive as well as cadavers. There is evidence that human organs can be recovered from the dead to help the living. In his paper Organ procurement: dead interests, living needs,’ the author suggests that ‘Cadaver organs should be automatically available,’ (John Harris). On some internet sites, one can find the worth of their various body parts including their cadavers on death. According to the magazine ‘Wired,’ if body parts are sold legally as components, the total value is about $45 million. The fact that many countries have however outlawed trade in human parts means that there is a thriving illegal trade in the same, (Carney, Scott). The overall determination therefore is: the human body is priceless, whether alive or dead.

Who was Henrietta Lacks?

According to the website Biography.com, Henrietta Lacks, named Loretta Pleasant at birth was born on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia. She later changed the name to Henrietta. In 1924, her mother died a situation that made her go to live with her grandfather and her first cousin David Lacks in his log cabin. The cousins got married in 1941and had five children together: Lawrence, David Jr. Deborah and Joseph, (Editors, Biography.com).

On 29th January 1951, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital after suffering abnormal pain and bleeding in her abdomen. A doctor examined her and noticed that there was a hard mass that had developed on the cervix. He removed a sample of the same and sent it to the lab for a pathological diagnosis. The results showed that the mass required further attention since it was malignant. On the 5th of February in 1951, information came that she had to return to the hospital the following day for treatment, which she did. On that Monday, she signed a consent form for removal of the tumor and treatment. The operating surgeon, however, cut some healthy and infected tissue after the administration of anesthesia. The tissue samples were given to Dr. George Gey, (Bley, Elizabeth).

Dr. Gey’s concern was in developing human tissue albeit unsuccessfully. Henrietta Lacks cells turned out different as they continued to grow and multiply. Her cells were called HeLa, an acronym derived from her first and last names. Unfortunately, she never was told that body tissue had been removed from her or that her cells were still multiplying and growing. (Skloot Rebecca). This lack of disclosure is a defining moment in the issues raised in this case.

The next stage of Henrietta’s treatment was eventful. Her sickness increased in intensity as soon as X-ray therapy was initiated. As this was happening, Dr. Gey was not only spreading the word about HeLa cells but also distributing them on request. The health of Henrietta worsened, and on 8th August 1951, she got admitted to the hospital. Additional cells were removed once again from her cervix. Tumors continued to spread from the abdomen and covered her whole body. She lost her life on October 4, 1951, nine months after her initial diagnosis (Bley, Elizabeth).

The death of Henrietta did not stop Dr. Gey from seeking additional tissues. Under the guise of an autopsy request, the medical facility prevailed upon her husband to give consent. He relented after getting convinced that it would be beneficial for his children. It was after over 20 years that the family realized that her cells had globally circulated. Forty-five years after her death, in a ceremony held at Morehouse College School of Medicine, Henrietta and her family’s contribution to science was recognized. October 11 was declared Henrietta Lacks Day, but it was Rebecca Skloot’s novel The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and her starting of The Henrietta Lacks foundation that has once again raised awareness of medical research ethics and the value of human tissue contribution, (Bley Elizabeth).

HeLa Cells in Research

HeLa cells have been used most significantly used in the creation of the Polio Vaccine. In contrast with past research whereby animal cells were preferred, HeLa cells allowed researchers to infect human cells with Polio and ultimately create a vaccine. Johns Hopkins Hospital, in another gene marker research, sent researchers to get blood samples from Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter. Lack of proper clarification of what the hospital was researching on marked this event. The HeLa cell line has been used to investigate what causes cancer and how to suppress it, development of drugs to treat influenza, Parkinson’s disease, herpes, hemophilia, and leukemia. Also, human longevity, lactose digestion, appendicitis, sexually transmitted infections (STI’s), and mosquito mating have all benefitted from the study of HeLa cells proteins and chromosomes, (Colan, Neal).

Currently, researchers can buy the HeLa cell line and use it in research. Skloot in a radio interview on NPR claims that, ‘…anyone can go online and buy a vial of HeLa cells for about $250, or you can buy products made using them for up to, like, $10,000 a vial.’ (Colan, Neal). The Lacks family in 2013 successfully stopped the Lars Steinmetz research group from publishing potentially private genetic information on their family, (Bley, Elizabeth). In addition, an agreement between the family and the National Institute of Health requires limited usage of the gene information of the cell line in addition to recognizing Henrietta and her family in all publications, (Caplan, Art). Despite this offer, compensation is insufficient compared to the gained benefits.

Value of the HeLa Cells

Rebecca Skoot claims that the number of HeLa cells grown to date are in the upwards of 50 million metric tons. She says, ‘The estimate of the possible weight of HeLa cells comes from Leonard Hayflick, who calculated the greatest possible weight potential of a normal human cell strain as 20 million metric tons.’ To her, this limit can easily be exceeded by HeLa cells ‘immortality’ and are not bound by the Hayflick limit, (Skloot, Rebecca). Elizabeth Bley from Ohio State University attempted to calculate the total worth of Henrietta’s cells. First, she tried to find out the total number of HeLa cells in existence. Her working came to a staggering 21,830,000,000,000,000,000,000 cells. In a separate methodology, where HeLa cells were placed end to end three times around the earth, the total numbers of cells were estimated to be a 5,725,000,000,000 cells. To avoid over or underestimating, Bley averaged the two results and came up with an average figure of 10,915,000,000,000,000,000,000 cells, (Bley, Elizabeth).

In the next step, she regarded the number of HeLa cells sold since Dr. Gey’s time, to the time of first mass production in 1952, up to the when Microbiological Associates was established in 1956 to today. In the early years, a vial sold for less than $50. Today, the price ranges between $258 to $551 a vial, (Elizabeth Bley).

Elizabeth in her view determined that HeLa cells are priceless since it was impossible to determine the value of Henrietta’s cells accurately. The fact that they have been used in medical advancements across many medical conditions and will continue to do so for as long as the cells continue to grow and divide makes them immortal and impossible to attach a price tag, (Elizabeth Bley).


In conclusion, today’s society is keen to ensure transparency and accountability. The story of Henrietta Lacks has opened eyes on the value of human tissue and the sacred nature of human body. Whereas medical advances are critical to human existence, it is prudent to honor those who offer themselves to help humanity achieve this progress. Although the current legal and research frameworks have reviewed provisions that safeguard human dignity, it is important to follow due process and offer adequate compensation. This will provide clarity to little understood biomedical research processes such as the use of cell tissue. The fact that it is impossible to actuate Henrietta’s contribution to humanity in monetary terms should be a wake up call.

Works Cited

Allen, M. J. et al. “Human Tissue Ownership And Use In Research: What Laboratorians And Researchers Should Know.” Clinical Chemistry, vol 56, no. 11, 2010, pp. 1675-1682. American Association For Clinical Chemistry (AACC), doi:10.1373/clinchem.2010.150672.

Bley, Elizabeth. “How Much Are My Cells Worth?” Works.Bepress.Com, 2013, https://works.bepress.com/elizabeth_bley/2/download/.

Caplan, Art. “NIH Finally Makes Good With Henrietta Lacks’ Family – And It’s About Time, Ethicist Says.” NBC News, 2013, https://www.nbcnews.com/health/nih-finally-makes-good-henrietta-lacks-family-its-about-time-6c10867941.

Carney, Scott. “Inside The Business Of Selling Human Body Parts.” WIRED, 2012, https://www.wired.com/2011/01/ff_redmarkets/.

Colan, Neal. “‘Immortal’ Cells Of Henrietta Lacks Live On In Labs.” Npr Books, 2010, http://www.npr.org/2010/12/13/132030076/henrietta-lacks-immortal-cells-live-on-in-labs.

Editors, Biography.com. “Henrietta Lacks.” Biography.Com, 2017, https://www.biography.com/people/henrietta-lacks-21366671.

Entine, Jon. “Your DNA In Death: Reflections On The Henrietta Lacks Bioethics Controversy | Genetic Literacy Project.” Genetic Literacy Project, 2013, https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/04/01/your-dna-in-death-reflections-on-the-henrietta-lacks-bioethics-controversy/.

Harris, J. “Organ procurement: dead interests, living needs.” Journal of Medical Ethics, vol. 29, no. 3, Jan. 2003, pp. 130–134., doi:10.1136/jme.29.3.130.

McDaniels, Andrea. “Henrietta Lack’s Family Wants Compensation For Her Cells.” Washington Post, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/henrietta-lackss-family-wants-compensation-for-her-cells/2017/02/14/816481ba-f302-11e6-b9c9-e83fce42fb61_story.html?utm_term=.d61465642218.

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks. New York, Broadway Paperbacks, 2011,.


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