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The Immortal Cell

michael posted more than 13 years ago | from the purgatory dept.

Science 157

chromatin writes: "A filmmaker at a college in boston has been working on the potentially endless history of Henrietta Lacks which is a fascinating story of where biotechnology comes from and what it does. Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, but a small sample of her cancer cells were found to live in culture dishes... and still do. As the first immortal human cell line, HeLa cells are used by researchers today for lots of experiments which whole people simply can't or shouldn't be used for. Working in labs like this with cells like this for several years, it's the first time I've heard her entire name! The Lacks family has never been compensated or really recognized by the scientific community - is this how patenting genes will work?" An odd story, that I've heard mentioned before but never knew much about.

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Re:GWB (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 13 years ago | (#2177395)

Bush administration, does this signal the start of a brain drain back towards Europe

I don't know, but mentioning Bush and "brain drain" in the same sentence is kind of funny and strangely appropriate. ;-)

Re:Sorry wrong topic (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 13 years ago | (#2177396)

On the other hand, is there any reason we can't make HeLa Pie ?

Yum !

Re:Sigh (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 13 years ago | (#2177397)

I think the point that dr_labrat is making is, would Charlene Gilbert have been as interested in making the documentary if Henrietta Lacks had been white? I get the feeling the answer is "no" - it's not even about the issues of consent you mention.

Re:Sigh (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 13 years ago | (#2177398)

[Me too!] The liberal slant in the mainstream media today is terrible. The NAACP is a communist and unAmerican organization who's only goal is to create more and more and more government welfare programs. What would happen if I called a black guy 'colored'? I'd probably get shot. But they can call themselves 'colored'? Typical liberal bullshit.

Ridiculous (3)

Anonymous Coward | more than 13 years ago | (#2177399)

The Lacks family has never been compensated

That's ridiculous.

Why is it that everything should always involve an exchange of money?! As if money has ever made the world a better place to live in...

Industries seeks compensation (3)

tolldog (1571) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177400)

This just in...
Cell phone and cigarett manufacturers are claiming ownership of any cancer cells that may potientialy be caused by use of their products. A plan for an EULA for use of the products now voids the individuals right to any cancerous cells in the body. It is unclear if the EULA is covering all cells created, both past and presant, and if they are specific to the product being used.

When questioned, spokesmen from the companies admit that this is being used as a way to ofset research costs into creating stronger, longer living cancer cells. Although they appear to want ownership of cancerous cells, they claim no responsibility for the creation of those cells.

Other industries are expected to jump on this compensation bandwagon soon.

Re:In Space? (1)

CurlyG (8268) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177404)

Err... I think the point is that the cells have been used in all sorts of biological experiments in outer-space, around the world, etc.

I doubt (though I'm way too slack to actually read the piece) that they're talking about strapping a brace of test tubes to the nose of an ICBM, pointing at space, and then sending a shuttle a few days later to check how the cells were doing...

who owns your DNA? (2)

peter303 (12292) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177406)

What if you had some superior protein in your
DNA that could make a medicine?
For example, the Italian families that have very
low cholestrol.
This issue will come up in the future.

Re:We *do* know why (1)

HeghmoH (13204) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177407)

And just like a "magic" packet on a real network, an "immortal" cell in a real human body is Bad News.

Re:It's a cash thing... (1)

ethereal (13958) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177408)

Wouldn't it bother you if someone made an exact clone of you, and then put that clone to work in the salt mines or picking cotton until he or she (because clones aren't 'it') died? How is it any different for someone to harvest cells from you and put them to work for profit well beyond their (your) natural life span? It may not be slavery of a whole person, but it's definitely slavery of parts of your body. Would it be OK with you if after you suffered brain death due to a disease, doctors re-animated your corpse with a simple microcontroller (a few years from now it could happen) and put you to work cleaning the halls at the hospital? I can't believe that more people don't see the ethical problems involved in enslaving someone's flesh like this.

It's great that medical science can cure this woman's cancer, but it's exceedingly unethical to continue to use these cells without her permission or at least the permission of her family. It's true that they could get cells from anybody to use, and if they don't have permission from her then they should do that instead. Maybe some doctor who's a great philanthropist could donate his cells and ensure that his name is remembered forever. But Mrs. Lacks didn't ask for immortality and it's unethical to force it upon her.

Re:Compensations... (1)

ethereal (13958) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177409)

But when you drive your Ford SUV like a sports car and it rolls over and maims your stupid ass, do you sue Ford?

You bet :)

Sigh (1)

dr_labrat (15478) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177413)

"...I'm an African-American woman whose ancestors survived this country's early participation in the trading, buying, and selling of human flesh - this question is of great concern to me,..."


Its one of *those* documentaries...

Re:Sigh (2)

dr_labrat (15478) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177414)

Hate groups...? What a strange mixed up pseudo-political world you must live in.

I simply mean that it appears not to be a science documentary, but rather one of those "personal axe to grind" movies.

It's a cash thing... (2)

Wee (17189) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177415)

The Lacks family - still poor and struggling to access health care - has not been compensated for the use of Henrietta's cells.

I find it very hard to believe that people in the US can't get health care (or "struggle" to get it). If they don't have it, then it's because they haven't tried. When I was young my family had very little money, and we went to the county hospital for everything from TB to broken bones. You showed up, avoided the prisoners chained to the benches next to you, saw a doctor (who maybe didn't speak English so well), got treated and left. I don't remember any of us every whining about it or asking for any pity or using our fairly austere upbringing to lend a sad yet authoritative note to some third party's wank of a film. They removed cancer from her. You don't typically get compensation for that kind of thing. At least, people didn't used to. Now that we have socially correct, wooly-headed thinkers like Charlene Gilbert around, that might change.

I wonder how many epidermal cells I've lost without receiving adequate compensation? Someone probably owes me cash. That air handler at Disney World stole my cells! I struggled to make those as a poor child! They traded my flesh for entertainment! I want cash! Someone make me a film about poor children! Breadwinners want their slice!

Either that or we can start a dialog, and talk about all the issues surrounding our cultural paradigm with respect to ethical consent and the shifting mores of a society wrenched with knowing it paid for people whose cells have been also traded as so much chattel and will live on into the next century long after we're all gone but still thinking of the viable mythlike qualities of the implicable ramifications of its moral institutions...

What a load. I want a grant too.


Dragon Ball Z? (1)

InstantCool (19982) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177416)

Cell wasn't immortal. Didn't Gohan take him out?


Re:This case is tame compared to John Moore's (1)

ejw (27330) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177418)

This is why the University of California (at least UCSD, ca. 1994, when I was still in the Golden State) makes researchers promise that primary cells (those isolated directly from patients) will not be retained for more than two weeks.

jvev atvf gurm rabs pern gvba

Re:It's a cash thing... (2)

Rupert (28001) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177419)

And of course the cost of healthcare has not risen at all since you were a child.


Spread around the world (1)

Ranx (28829) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177421)

I once saw a very interesting documentary about these cells. At one time other countries discovered self-multiplying cells. It turned out these cells were from Henrietta Lacks too.

Re:uhhhh (1)

mefus (34481) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177423)

sole purpose is to grow to the point where it kills its host.
Huh? Get a grip, man. Cells, tumorous or otherwise, lack any purposefulness whatsoever. They just are as you find them. These particular cells lost the ability to regulate their growth rate, so they continue to multiply. Or divide. Or something. Now I forgot what I was... Oh what's this button do?

Re:It's a cash thing... (1)

mefus (34481) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177424)

I think someone's privatized your clinic, by now...

Very interesting (2)

ajs (35943) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177425)

One might even go so far as to say... HeLa cool!

Er, sorry it just slipped out!

Aaron Sherman (

Re:Sigh (2)

greenrd (47933) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177426)

Africa is not a country, it is a continent.

Besides, the fact that black Africans were involved doesn't negate the wrong done by white Americans (obviously).

Compensation madness (3)

lordfetish (48651) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177428)

Why should there be any compensation for the families? It is highly likely that the cell sample was taken as part of a standard biopsy as part of a monitoring/treatment program. My understanding of the HeLa line is that it is a standard cell lineage for doing oncological research by academics and is freely available to other cancer researchers at cost. Very few academics actually profit all that much from research and I dare say no one is profiting from distributing the HeLa cells. I know of a number of cases where oncologists could have patented cancer genes, but instead chose to do you right thing and gave away their rights so that the speed at which new treatments were developed was greatly increased.

There are plenty of other people with cancer in the world, whom I'm sure would give a cancer cell sample for free if it would contribute to finding a cure.

Cancer cells may be immortal, insofar as they don't undergo programmed cell death, but they usually continue to mutate at an incredible rate relative to healthy somatic cells - there will be a great number of genetic differences between todays HeLa cells and the original healthy host cells. It isn't as if someone's 'genes are being stolen'.

More then money... (5)

Flambergius (55153) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177429)

I read the early comments (1+ rated anyways) with quite a bit of amazement. Almost without execption they focused, in outrage, on one sentance of the article. The outrage was naturally focused on the greedy, gimme-money-for-nothing-for-we-sue demand for payment made by ... nobody.

The paragraph in question:

"I'm interested in the ethical - or not so ethical - relationship between Henrietta Lacks, her family, and Johns Hopkins University," Gilbert said, noting that the Lacks story is a cautionary one with major implications today. Neither Henrietta nor the Lacks family gave permission for her cells to be used for research; in fact, the family didn't learn about the proliferation of HeLa cells until the early 1970s. The Lacks family - still poor and struggling to access health care - has not been compensated for the use of Henrietta's cells.

I checked, although not very carefully, and it seems this is only mention of compensation in the article. It's not even a demand for compensation but a statement of a fact, although made in a way undeniably suggests that a compensation of some sort might be in order.

Even though I agree that a demand for monitary compensation for the cells would pretty questionable, I find it hard to sympathize with those who read the article and found that particular detail the only thing worth commenting on. What about the ethical questions about, for example as there are many that could be asked, persons right to decide what happens to her body? What about funny feeling you get (well, I get at least) when you think about immortality? What about those experimental documentry techniques?

The researchers didn't ask your Mrs. Lacks permissions to use the cells. That's wrong, but not very surpricing as this was the 50's. Lack's family didn't learn about this until the 70's, wrong too. The doctors and researchers do not have any moral right to decide what happens to a patients body, including body parts like organs and cells. Patient's rights must be paramount to doctor's.

There is no question that HeLa cells were extremelly useful for medical research. While usefulness to a researcher does not have baring, usefulness to society does have. A patient must have the right to deny a researcher use of her cells, but I would also content that society has the right to overturn that denial. This should not be taken as a carte blanc assertion that the need of many outweight the right of few. This is a basis for a pragmatic proposal to this difficult question. I for one would feel rather silly if some poor bitter bastard, that had with a chance-mutation developed a cure for cancer, wanted to take it with him to the grave. There ought to be some way to compel him to donate the cells needed (assuming of course that it's just a few cell and not a leg or an eye). Such action should be rare and the procedure formalized, transparent and under democratic control.

I'm far for certain that all questions involed in "commercalization of the human body" would have nice pragmatic solution. In those cases I think we will be better of going with the rights, even if other choices would present clear and useful benefits.


Re:xcuse me? (1)

Scuff (59882) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177430)

There's a perfectly legitimate reason that the family should be compensated for this, somebody is out there selling these to the cancer researchers either at exorbinant costs or (more likely) in extremely high quantities. seems to me that that her heirs should be getting some share of that. From the article:
In what has become a billion-dollar industry, HeLa cells have traveled around the world and been shot into space."

Cell (1)

thetechweenie (60363) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177431)

At first I thought Cell had come back to life in DBZ. The topics switching from Anime to biology are way too confusing!

Re:Ridiculous (1)

operagost (62405) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177432)

I don't suppose that calling Henrietta's husband or parents to tell them the important role her cells were performing would have been so hard. They only found out in the 1970s. Perhaps they would have appreciated the fact that her death had meaning.

This case is tame compared to John Moore's (4)

camusflage (65105) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177433)

A leukemia patient, John Moore, endured over a dozen "treatment" sessions with his physician, David Golde. These sessions consisted of the removal of his cellular material. Turns out the University of California had worked out a deal with his physician to pay at least 1/3 of a million dollars and rights to 75k shares of stock, in exchange for exclusive access to his research. Dr. Golde even started paying for Moore's travel and accomodations. At this point, Moore became suspicious, and asked about the commerical potential of his cells. After vague answers, he withdrew consent for his cells to be used in research, causing Golde to flip out.

Full details are here [] .

Where's the line? (1)

Ghengis (73865) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177435)

My question is where do we draw the line between cells we should claim, and those we shouldn't. Do we claim all of our cells? If so then we waste our time on skin cells, blood from nicks and scrapes, etc., and who knows what happens in terms of search and seziure when related to using cells for DNA criminal evidence. Do we only claim living cells (like He La)? If so, then what's living? Are eggs and sperm living or does the government come up with some law about them being in a special "suspended animation" state? If a big deal were made about this issue then we could be in for our government wasting it's time worrying about this crap instead of working on worthwhile things like education and poverty... stuff that really matters.

Re:Ridiculous (1)

kenf (75431) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177436)

If I remember the story correctly Mrs. Lacks was a black woman, in Baltimore. Hey this was the very early fifties. what did you expect!

Re:Yes, of course she should have been paid... (2)

eightball (88525) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177440)

I agree that the family should receive something if this discovery ever makes money.

This case isn't as simple as the one you posited, where the money is in the bank (well, somebody's bank) even before the sample is obtained.

To make your analogy fit this case, it would be more like this:
The State Barber Association finds a problem w/ cutting certain types of hair and needs to find clippings to see why it is so difficult to cut this hair. Your barber looks through piles of hair and finds your hair matches. They study your hair and gain a better understanding of how to cut your type of hair. Now, maybe barbers make a little more money from people helped out by this technique as their haircuts come out much better than they did before. It would be very hard to prove how much money they got, though.

&lttongue_in_cheek> As far as your assertion that you own every cell that originated from your body, I forsee many more problems w/ this than the problems you suggest. Imagine one day your are fined for improper disposal of bodily material when your skin and hair fall off your body and contaminate offices, restaurants, chip fabrication plants, etc.. We need to pay people to clean up this mess or spend the time ourselves to clean this up. When you start paying your bills, then we'll talk about residuals.. &lt/tongue_in_cheek>

Re:Immortal (2)

SamBeckett (96685) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177442)

She is immortal and she has never even met Conor McCloud from the Clan McCloud ;-)
Of course she did. How do you think she died?

Re:We *do* know why (1)

soulsteal (104635) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177446)

Without going into unnecessary detail, basically it is because the cell gathers several mutations, which screw up certain controls on the cell cycle. Thus the cell is eternaly in the 'growth phase'

To put it into somewhat geeky techno speak, these cells are equivalent to "magic" packets on a network with an infinite TTL. Just in case anyone couldn't understand what he said. Oh, and to use the word "equivalent."

Re:college in boston? (1)

karmma (105156) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177448)

While I listen to Jay Severin, too, the name "People's Republic of Cambridge" predates Jay.

What I find humorous is that a Google Search [] of that phrase returns the official City of Cambridge [] website as the first match.

You know you watch too much cartoon network when.. (1)

psocccer (105399) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177449)

You see the title "The Immortal Cell" and you think that you're going to get an interview with Gohan, Goku, and the oh-so-mighty Hercule.

Re:I'd love it... (1)

nobody69 (116149) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177450)

Hey, if you want to make an omelette, you gotta break some eggs.

Re:Ridiculous (2)

nobody69 (116149) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177451)

Actually, giving Henrietta some credit would probably be a good start. I was a bio major and did biochem research in the old days, and we talked about HeLa cells in several situations and every time I got a different, usually wrong explanation, of the name - 'Helen Lane', 'Helen Latham', etc. In science, credit is more important than cash in many ways. That's why there is usually am 'Acknowledgements' section at the end of papers, in addition to the actual references. For that matter, when I took and TA'd Gross Anatomy we knew the names of the people we dissected. It certainly would not have killed the National Academy of Sciences or the NSF to write a letter to the Lacks family to let them know that while they have lost a loved one, she is helping others.

Re:Well, here's a thought... (1)

tburkhol (121842) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177453)

What about acknowledgement?

Ethical use of humans and human tissues in scientific experiments is generally considered to require anonymity for the subject. Otherwise, an awful lot of supposedly confidential medical information about specific individuals would be published. Maybe, 40 years later, it's not entirely relevant that Mrs Lacks had cervical cancer, but I'm sure I wouldn't want the world to know if I were taking an experimental AIDS treatment, for example.

Re:We *do* know why (1)

idot (130605) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177454)

these cells dont really care about telomeres anymore. They dont need telomerase, they gain telomeres by recombining with other cromosomes.

Re:Well why not study and find out WHY!!! (1)

SLi (132609) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177455)

And why would ending aging be good?

Yay! (1)

segfault7375 (135849) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177460)

Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, but a small sample of her cancer cells were found to live in culture dishes... w00 h00! More proof that Linux will live forever :-)

Re:Your cells are free, HeLa Cells cost $$ (1)

DrZZ (138100) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177461)

I'd like to know where you get your estimates. ATCC will sell you a vial of HeLa cells for $167. The NCI will ship cells to researchers for what is estimated to be just under cost and that fee is $150. A lab usually needs only one sample and they can grow out as many cells as they want for as long as they want. I'd be surprised if there are more than a few dozen orders for HeLa cells per year and there certainly aren't thousands of orders. Add to that the fact that HeLa is just one of ~700 human tumor cell lines ATCC will ship you and I just can't see how you get to HeLa cells being a big money maker. If you know someone making millions, let alone billions on HeLa cells, I'd sure like to see some hard data.

uhhhh (1)

BiggestPOS (139071) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177462)

A cancerous tumor continues to live. Umm, ok. I wouldn't exactly call that a human being, or really even a human cell. Its something that is the result of an abberation in human anotomy thats sole purpose is to grow to the point where it kills its host. But apparently, the caner doesn't really care, as it can live on! Well shit, no I need to be turned into some sort of cancer, of course if you ask anyone who knows me, I already am. :)

Compensation (2)

HerrGlock (141750) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177463)

So, all those people who have donated their time, money and bodies to science knowing full well they will never get a dime for it, are okay but this person seems to require compensation?

Whatever happened to 'for the greater good' that the left keeps telling us about? Oh, that's only when they want to take rights away from 'the people.' I forgot.

Cav Pilot's Reference Page []

The cells are _not_ the woman (2)

TheEye (142492) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177464)

The cells having been removed at one time
from an actual human does not imply the cells
which have propagated are actually a part
of that same human. Remember you shed skin
cells by the dozens, loose hairs, etc. every
day again. And cells alone do not make a human.

The actual work done is _not_ by the human which
has donated/been ripped off its cells, but by
the researchers or analysts. This is
completely different from slave labour where
the work done _was_ in fact by these people being

Bottom line: the donor did not add anything
substantial to the cells being propagated
apart from having it abstracted for her own
benifit (getting medical care) and thus
does not have right to any compensation.

The case of patenting genes is of a completely
different order. Here research is not rewarded
its "just" compensation through a patent,
but is effectively all FUTURE research being killed off.

This last fact can e.g. prohibit finding a cure
for a disease simply because it involves the
malfunction of a patented gene, and the patentees
do not find it cost-effective to do the research


Re:In Space? (1)

cosmicaug (150534) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177465)

Err... I think the point is that the cells have been used in all sorts of biological experiments in outer-space, around the world, etc.

Exactly. I've also read that they've been known to replace other cultures acting as accidental contaminants because they are so hardy and aggressive to the point of causing serious problems for researchers because they end up unknowingly working with something different than what they're supposed to be working with. I remember that a book was written about these cultures quite a few years ago (the book title I remember is probably A Conspiracy of Cells [] ).

Re:xcuse me? (1)

AndyChrist (161262) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177468)

"IIRC, they even *look* special, growths of HeLa look like netting with PERLS strung on it, which is apparently rather unusual (disclaimer: IANABiologist)."

With a typo like that, I wonder what you are?

Re:FEH! (1)

AndyChrist (161262) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177469)

Gimme a break...has Lambert BEEN in a decent movie since the original Highlander?

Well, there's some Luc Besson movie I wanna see with him in it, but not till I get back to the states and can see it with ENGLISH subtitles.

Never heard of Mean Guns, it better than Avalon?

Re:Compensations... (1)

smack_attack (171144) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177471)

When you drive your Ford Escort into a tree because the road was wet, do you sue Ford?



Please! (1)

tcdk (173945) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177472)

"Colored Bodies" is very much from Gilbert's point of view: "I make no claims to objectivity," she says. In the last section of the film, she puts herself physically into the film as well, showcasing a series of X-rays and MRIs of her own body

So behind all the pretty words about etical, racial and proverty problems, it all comes down to "me! me! me!".

Yes, of course she should have been paid... (2)

jeko (179919) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177475)

(It shouldn't matter, but a white male speaking)

A hair dye company is having great trouble finding a particular shade of brownish blondish hair. They offer a $100 million dollar bounty to the State Barber Association for a sample of this exact hair color.

Turns out it's your exact hair color. Your barber takes your hair clippings and retires forever. You don't find out until after the fact.

Tell me how many milliseconds would go by before you would be on the phone to a lawyer.

If anyone owns anything, you own your own body. You own every piece of it, every hair, every cell, every little bit of it. Ms. Lacks give a part of her body so her physician could try to cure her disease, a service she presumably paid for.

She did not authorize this. She did not LICENSE this use of her tissues. If you're going to be a capitalist, then don't be a hypocrite. This was, quite simply, a theft of Ms. Lacks' property. She deserves compensation.

Not the first... (2)

shokk (187512) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177476)

For about 5 billion years, the same single cell that spawned on this planet has been splitting and mutating into the many varieties we see today. As the only species on the planet capable of understanding this, it is our duty to make sure we don't screw it up, making that cell's long struggle a complete wasted. In a sense, that cell, and thus humanity, is this planet's attempt at reaching beyond its primitive boundaries and propagating further through the universe. We are nothing more than a stage in a process of macro-panspermia. If we don't destroy ourselves, we'll be able to coat the universe with all sorts of life, moving that immortal cell onward to other worlds.

Its past due time... (1)

jonnystiph (192687) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177477)

that these cells are rewarded with a lifetime achievement award. Per usual send the fam the obligatory fruit basket.

Re:Okay so they live forever. Why can't other cell (1)

koekepeer (197127) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177478)

ehm imagine all cells would divide indefinetely. your body would have shape nor size, muscles nor bones, ass nor brain, oh! the last thing doesn't really make a difference. read the article, stay on topic thank you

Re:More then money... (2)

dgroskind (198819) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177479)

The outrage was naturally focused on the greedy, gimme-money-for-nothing-for-we-sue demand for payment made by ... nobody.

The issue of compensation goes to the heart of the ethical issue. It points up the difficulty of applying legal principles of ownership in situations that were completely unanticipated in framing the principles.

For instance, under the The Three Stooges principle [] , the Lack family might have a claim unless the users of the cells transformed them so that they were deriving benefit from the result rather than the original cells.

If conventional property rights to do not apply to cells, then what rights do apply? If the cells are not the property of the individual, what other parts of the body are not the property of the individual? If the cells have value, who has claim on that value?

The issues did not arise in the past because cells, unlike property, did not survive outside the body. Now that they do, all cellular matter inadvertently takes on the attributes of property.

If you argue that cells are not property for legal purposes but something new, you might have to define a new right in the U.S. Constitution that resembles the 5th Amendment [] that says no one shall be "deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law."

Such an amendment might say "No person shall be deprived of cellular matter, limbs, organs or bodily fluids without due process of law. The rights attached to cellular matter shall not apply to any material derived, decended or cloned from said cellular matter. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

basic biology (1)

Starbreeze (209787) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177484)

man what school did you go to? i took intro to biology for my science credit and we learned about these.

further information (3)

bbh (210459) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177485)

Here is a little further information about Henrietta Lacks and George Gey. The Henrietta Lacks article is from John Hopkins Magazine and the Gey article is from a University of Pittsburgh article. The Gey article gives a littl more info about his attempts at setting up cell lines and his life, etc.. The Lacks article talks about the family, how they first found out 25 years later that there mothers cells were used and ethical issues, etc.. .html [] []

Compensation (1)

PHAEDRU5 (213667) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177486)

I'll write the check

...and wait for the cells to cash it.

Immortal (1)

Setsuna (217093) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177487)

She is immortal and she has never even met Conor McCloud from the Clan McCloud ;-)

We *do* know why (4)

onco_p53 (231322) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177489)

Obviously YANAB

We do know why cells like these and other immortal cell lines live forever.

Without going into unnecessary detail, basically it is because the cell gathers several mutations, which screw up certain controls on the cell cycle. Thus the cell is eternaly in the 'growth phase'

For those of you who hunger for more info: /cellcycle/cellcycl1.htm

Your cells are free, HeLa Cells cost $$ (1)

selan (234261) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177490)

If you would be upset if someone stole your idea and sold it as his own (e.g. using GPLed code in a closed-source commercial product), how would you feel if someone took a part of your body and sold it? Sure your cells are free, but HeLa cells are a billion dollar industry. Someone is making a lot of money from selling a part of someone else's body and the original owner never got a cent.

Well, here's a thought... (1)

HoldmyCauls (239328) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177493)

What about acknowledgement? The article describes the situation as a woman who's being used (if she's not getting much credit, and they're her cells, she's being *used*, IMNSHO) for scientific research, whose name most people haven't even heard of. The poster even mentioned that, though they had worked with these HeLa cells, they didn't know her story.

I'm not saying they should build a huge statue or anything, but at least mention in a science/medicine journal how helpful this woman's existence has been to research.

Isn't this the same as being an Anotomical Donor? (1)

reezle (239894) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177494)

It doesn't sound like anybody agreed to being a donor in this case, though. The researcher just saw something useful, grabed it, and started showing off to his peers by passing it around. I'd be real curious to know if the family even knew it was happening at the time. (Let alone consented to it beforehand).

Re:Compensating for cancer cells? (1)

pkesel (246048) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177497)

The argument, which I don't agree with, is not really about ownership of a few cells. It's about being uninformed accomplices in an effort whose magnitude was unknown. Their family name has been carried from lab to lab and has become part of the medical nomenclature. What started with their cells has now become the backbone of an entire branch of medical science. Had they said instead, "Nope. Nothing to see here." and cast the cells into the hopper there would be no issue. There is a sentiment, erroneous in my thought, that if you contribute to something significant you should be rewarded in a similar magnitude.

I happen to agree, that they're just discarded cells, like old toenail clippings.

Re:Ridiculous (1)

tanpiover2 (249666) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177498)

The original quote should have been "you can substitute money in the analogy with marketing and anything, and it would still be true and logical"

NOW let's see if it works:

"Rubber chickens and a good marketing strategy make you a hundred times wealther than you would be in a non-rubber-chicken system."


Replace "Rubber Chicken" with "Chia Pet" or "Pokemon" and it may become more clear.

Well why not study and find out WHY!!! (1)

HanzoSan (251665) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177499)

If these scientists want to do something useful they should find out why the cells arent dying, perhaps they can end aging.

Ethics of cast off body parts (1)

Muad'Dave (255648) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177500)

The Lacks family has never been compensated or really recognized by the scientific community...

No one has mentioned that hospitals routinely 'claim' the placenta and cord (and it's precious stem cell rich blood) for their uses (including sale). Ethically, is this the same situation? Shouldn't the family at least have the choice as to what happens to their cast off body parts?

Does paying for and agreeing to an operation give doctors/hospitals/researchers rights to 'derived works' from your parts?

Another white devil movie (1)

hyrdra (260687) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177501)

I fear that the woman behind this, Charlene Gilbert, is going to turn it into some kind of personal vendetta and have it be another story about the white devil. She is already fused with black pride all through her story, and is clear in only one thing: revenge.

She seems more concerned with the fact someone wasn't payed than what have come from HeLa cells -- breakthroughs and cures in medical history.

You can see where this is going to based upon her prior film, about "black farmers and land loss since the Civil War," this will likely be the same tone: racially deviding and told with a slanted, pro-ethnic stance.

It's sad. Henrietta Lacks is a living legend who continues to live and help people even after death. I'm sure anyone would want to have the cure for polio and other diseases attributed to their name. I personally think it's disgusting to put money into this as this film-maker woman seems to want to do. We're talking about the human species here, not money or questions of racial black-white. This is much larger than trivial issues of that nature.

Re:Sigh (2)

Rogerborg (306625) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177504)

  • "...I'm an African-American woman whose ancestors survived this country's early participation in the trading, buying, and selling of human flesh - this question is of great concern to me,..."

Perhaps by "this" country she means Africa and not the USA? Or are we now pretending that black Africans didn't supply the slave trade?

Re:college in boston? (1)

kcurtis (311610) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177506)

Indeed, it is in the Peoples Republic of Cambridge [] .

There's no money 'cos shes's not famous (1)

tb3 (313150) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177507)

If they made JayLo cells immortal instead of HeLa, there'd be money in it.

Re:More then money... (2)

geoswan (316494) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177511)

The issues did not arise in the past because cells, unlike property, did not survive outside the body. Now that they do, all cellular matter inadvertently takes on the attributes of property.

That is not, strictly speaking, true. Famous people, like Napoleon Bonaparte, used to snip off locks of their hair, to give to their loved ones, fans, well-wishers, and those who had done them favours. I know a number of locks of his hair have survived to the present day, because researchers were able to subject them to modern forensic tests to prove that he was the victim of chronic Arsenic poisoning.

Should the same marketplace economics be applied to medically useful living cells as to these souvenirs?

FWIW, IIRC, a number of people who had access to his body took the opportunity to snip additional locks of hair.

Re:Ridiculous (2)

GreyPoopon (411036) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177514)

I agree. Actually, the way I feel it should work is this:
  • The Lacks family should be happy and proud that a member of their family was able to give something that has saved countless others. They should not expect compensation.
  • Those researchers (and their institutions) who benefited from HeLa cells should be going out of their way to financially compensate the the Lacks family.

Get it? Each has a role. Each should be willing to give and not expecting to "get." Anybody agree?


Re:uhhhh (1)

aBoy (413299) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177515)

If you think of a tumour as a colony of human cells rather than a multicellular organism, then yes, it is life.
If you count artificial division of the tumour (cutting it in half) as replication, then its life in that way as well. It's as if 'HeLa' has a symbiotic relationship with science.

I'd love it... (2)

aBoy (413299) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177516)

I dont know about anyone else, but I'd love the idea of a part of me 'living on' far into the future for the sake of science.

The only thing I'd be worried about is people laughing at the state of my DNA in 10 years time... :)

Re:Sigh (1)

5KindsOfSalmon (414627) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177517)

Well, so what? Does that make her insights and research into the history of the case any less valid? I'd argue no.

Our own experiences will always predispose us to be interested in certain topics, to look a little longer than we might otherwise. Would I dig sailing as much if I grew up on the prairies? Did doing logic problems as a kid with my math teacher dad set me up to dig on programming? Probably. Is that any reason to discount my interest or pursuits in those fields? I don't think so.

When it comes to doing good history, I happen to think that being up-front about some of the reasons for your interest in a story lets your audience better appreciate your analysis. (Of course, it also opens you up to charges of 'axe-grinding', but as a reader/viewer, I'd rather have that information going in.) I've never read any history that wasn't made a lot clearer and more useful by finding out more about its writer.

'Coming clean' about your possible influences/conflicts of interest is a good thing in many realms, history-writing included. Note that I'm not saying that Gilbert's film *won't* be a strongly-biased, historically inaccurate, propaganda piece, but rather that I see her honesty about her own 'angle' as a good thing.

Where I think dr_labrat jumped the rails into questionability when he or she made just such an assumption: that Gilbert's being of the same race as the subject of her documentary was grounds for dismissing whatever she had to say on the matter as axe-grinding. That should wait until you've seen/heard what she has to say, and, as I said in my last message, the interview with the filmmaker does little to support such an assumption.

Re:Sigh (3)

5KindsOfSalmon (414627) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177518)

I don't know, I think the filmmaker's being forthright about her motivations and interest is admirable, and I do agree that it sounds pretty bad to dismiss the work of a filmmaker who says that her thinking about racism in America informs a historical documentary she's working on as "one of *those* documentaries," as you did.

I'll grant you that the analogy between use of tissue samples and slavery is a bit strained, but if you'd read the f'n article, you'd have seen that this particular filmmaker is coming at this from a lot of interesting angles, and is just as open about the relevance of her personal experiences to them. For example, she talks about the parallel questions of consent vs. furthering the public interest that arise in the making of documentaries, and also discusses her interest in exploring the 'mythic' side of the immortal cell line story.

Racism exists (even in Science!!) and by blowing off any discussion of its role in historical developments as 'axe-grinding' you open yourself up to the kind of accusation/questioning you've seen here. I don't think this sort of response is P.C. gone out of control, if I may pre-emptively respond to what I suspect your response to this post might be, but rather a reminder to keep the squelch turned up a little higher up on your own personal bullshit detector, lest you become (or appear) truly insensitive to the important and real concerns and insights of others.

Furthermore, as a trained 'historian of science' (I won't tell you which college in Boston it's from), I find your sanctification of the "science documentary" amusing. It's a seedy, complicated world, and while I enjoy the cut-and-dried 19th-century rivalry-driven PBS train-bridge-construction documentary genre as much as the next guy, I certainly also appreciate a historian who's not afraid to dig a little deeper.

Re:xcuse me? (1)

s21980uh (415606) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177519)

bzzt ... wrong (I think).

It's not like this woman is very special. She just happened to be around when a scientist needed a cell culture. He could have taken them from anyone.

I may be wrong, but to the best of my recollection, these cells *are* very special. The scientists originally just took a standard cell sample the way they always do when someone has cancer, only in this case the cancer cells turned out to multiply like crazy and even contaminated other cell lines - unintentionally.

IIRC, they even *look* special, growths of HeLa look like netting with perls strung on it, which is apparently rather unusual (disclaimer: IANABiologist).

Compensations... (2)

Tuonenkielo (444651) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177522)

I wonderif the Lacks family being compensatedfor the benefits from HeLa cell research woul open themselves up for further compensation claims for thenumerous researches that were ruined when HeLa cells infected other cultures?

Two things come to mind re: compensation (1)

NFNNMIDATA (449069) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177523)

1) It isn't legal to sell/buy human organs or cadavers
2) It is legal to sell/buy human blood & plasma

Bottom line, this is America baby and if they didn't get a donation form signed by her or the family saying they can do research (and somewhere down the line make $$) with her disembodied cells, they probably owe money. Hence the whole not-even-telling-the-family-so-at-least-they-get-a -good-feeling thing.

We're not talking academia here either, there are some enormously profitable drug companies out there and you can bet they benefited from HeLa cells even if they didn't outright use them.

When the Cancer cure comes (good luck on that but whatever) you can bet it will be in a very expensive pill/shot/whatever, and while BigAssPharmaceutical, Inc will be getting a nice amount of cash on each sale, a certain Lacks family will be doing good just to pay full price for the generic version.

Re:xcuse me? (2)

Ubi_UK (451829) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177524)

The cells are sent around for free.
It's the technology around it that is the industry. If the family starts whining they'll just take cells from somebody else. It's not like this woman is very special. She just happened to be around when a scientist needed a cell culture. He could have taken them from anyone.
It's a multi-billion dollar industry because scientist work with these cells, and those scientist have to be paid (GNU's not University). That's where the mony is going. NOBODY is paying royalties to the scientist who happened to isolate these cells. You pay royalties to people to studied the cells (which costs money) and found an application with these cells.

xcuse me? (5)

Ubi_UK (451829) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177525)

compensating the family?? for WHAT?
They've taken cells out of the body to check for cancer, as they do with all cancer patients. Only difference is that they kept propagating the cells. WHY do we have to pay the family of this woman? Did they suffer in any way from this???

If I die of cancer, and scientist manage to use my cells after my death to study and cure other cancer patients, that is more compensation then I could hope for!

also: this had *nothing* to do with patenting genes! That line is just added to create some extra hysteria among the masses who just do not understand how all this biotecho goes.

Re:Well why not study and find out WHY!!! (1)

dhd (454969) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177528)

I think ending aging is about the worst idea ever. I'd rather die of old age than die of starvation, due to an out of control population with zero death rate.

Ridiculous that you think that maybe... (1)

JudgeFurious (455868) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177529)

Of course it means something just like your "Water" version means something. It has value and so it makes things possible that would not be otherwise.

Re:Please! (1)

DNS-and-BIND (461968) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177530)

The filmmaker is from Radcliffe, after all...

Compensating for cancer cells? (3)

Saggi (462624) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177532)

Stupid! Where do your own cells come from? You parents, right. But they don't own you. And even the cell's we could claim to be ours, we throw away. When a hospital perform an operation (like removing a leg or something) do we then order then to take the part with us back home to put on a shelve? Of cause we don't. And in out daily lives our body reject lots of dead and living cells. If we cut our finger, should we claim the blood?

The whole idea of owning cells or bodyparts is very scary to me. Why have people become so obsessed by owning every thing from ideas to cells? It appears that if someone in any way can make money from someone else (often with the help of lawyers) they should. What is the world coming to?

Compensate? Anyone looked that word up in a dictionary. I don't hope my family need to be compensated for being relatives to me...

As for the cells themselves, I find that story much more interesting. Science studies into cells like these will provide us all with knowledge to cure diseases and even prolong life. This story have potential of both scientific information as well as ethical issues, way beyond if someone should be compensated economically, because they are a relative to someone.


Re:Compensation madness (1)

Richard Bannister (464181) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177533)

Why should there be compensation for anything? Given the situation where a stillborn baby has organs removed for research - do the parents deserve to be compensated, given that the use of the organs would not be for profit?

I dunno - I feel that without explicit permission for something like this, compensation probably should be on the cards...

Hehehehe.... (1)

Richard Bannister (464181) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177534)

I don't hope my family need to be compensated for being relatives to me...

LOL, I can think of a number of families that might want compensation for certain relatives...!

Open Source Genetics (1)

kris_lang (466170) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177535)

Here are some major open source issues with this.

1. Most science is conducted with a mix of monies, private funding (VC etc), public funding (nonprofits via donations), and taxes (via federal institutional grants from NIH, DoD, etc.) and secondarily through taxes (SBIR grants).

2. Scientific endeavors funded through federal funds are supposed to be made available to the gov't for use without additional licensing fees.

3. Peer-reviewed journals used to require that scientists publishing through them would openly allow collaboration through access to their data or their cell lines, materiels, bioligicals (e.g. mice, bacteria, other creatures) with particular mutations appropriate for studies.

4. There is a big debate about the human genome prject data and the embargoing of the data by private firms which used public monies.

5. A lot of scientists have seen the cash register instead of the light and are looking towards their own personal beneficence rather than 'the public good'.

6. Physicians, clinical and research types, used to share information about particular cases to create larger datasets allowing them to be aware of particular problems that may occur very infrequently. Nowadays, with the competition for grants and funding, information cards are held close to the chest and very little is shared.

Doesn't this seem very parallel to the open source software community? What are we in it for? Is it for the greater good or for personal gain?

It is possible to have personal gain and public benefit. They are not mutually exclusive. However, certain elements always feel that they should be able to profit enormously and obscenely from things which they did not even create.

And on another parallel with open-source software, the Patent Office has seen fit to allow the patenting of certain organisms based on their genetic makeup. I believe that prior art exists for these organisms and thus these objects should not be patentable.

Re:Ridiculous (5)

Giant Hairy Spider (467310) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177537)

I don't believe that her family should be compensated for the use of her tissue sample, but I object to the "filthy money" reasoning.

Money is the reason grocer bothers stocking the shelves you buy from, and the reason the farmer bothers growing a thousand times more food than his family can eat. Money is the bond that holds ten thousand individuals in cooperation long enough to produce something as insanely complicated as a computer in quantities that allow you to own one. Money makes us turn a blind eye to race, religion, and nationality, to help more than the handful of people we know and like.

Money makes you a hundred times wealthier than you would be in a non-monetary system and keeps you from starving during local crop failures. Don't knock the lucre.


Re:Good coffee (1)

papertech (467382) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177538)

What are you doing in your cubicle at this time of night. What time is it there, anyway?

Re:We *do* know why (1)

vtechpilot (468543) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177539)

That URL is damaged it should be /cellcycle/cellcycl1.htm
without the space after 431

Re:further information (1)

Lars T. (470328) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177541)

If someone finds a cure for cancer with the help of the HeLa cells, and if one of Lacks got cancer (maybe because the cancer Mrs. Lacks had is hereditary) - would they be able to afford the treatment?

Re:More then money... (1)

rajslashdot (470501) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177542)

I agree. The family needs to be compensated Not because the cells were used, but because they were used ILLEGALY, without consent.

I can drill for oil on your land for free then? (1)

sifter128 (470589) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177543)

My cells. You want to make money off them I get a share of the profit! Simple no?

Re:I'd love it... (1)

blafasel (471018) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177545)

interestingly enough it's the part of you that killed you that's immortal...

Okay so they live forever. Why can't other cells? (1)

Rinswind (472564) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177546)

As I understand it these cells multiplicate endlessly as long as there is food arround to provide them with resources to do it (does it coast much for a laboratory to get a piece of such a cell colony I wonder :). What I don't get is why can't other cancer cells do that? (or maybe not only cancer cells). Another thing that comes to my mind is that after so many divisions (that's how they multiplicate right?) these cells must mutate and become who knows what. So can they be still used on the basis that they contain human DNA? And finally the last thing that comes to me mind (just now :) is if any of them cells actually die or they only divide? That would be like they are realy immortal right? i think :)

Re:Okay so they live forever. Why can't other cell (1)

Rinswind (472564) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177547)

I am on topic. Sorry for not making my point clear. I ment to ask if any of the MUTANT CANCER "immortal" cells actually DIE (I'm speculating with the word "immortal" here :) or almost all of them manage to devide. I'm just interested to know what realy is so special about these perticular cancer cells and the only thing that comes to my mind is this. Meybe their agressivness (someone wrote about that) is realy about almost all of them managing to devide and thus keeping the colony evergrowing?

does filmmaker Charlene Gilber have permission... (1)

Ente (472919) | more than 13 years ago | (#2177548)

I was just wondering if indipendent filmmaker Charlene Gilber have permission from Henrietta Lacks to make a film about her? Or will the Lacks family see any compensation from the film.
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