How much are your cells worth?

Saddleback College’s anthropology department holds panel for Henrietta Lacks

Saddleback College professors Pete Murray, Basil Smith and Emily Quinlan lead a panel discussing Henrietta Lacks. ()

Saddleback College professors Pete Murray, Basil Smith and Emily Quinlan lead a panel discussing Henrietta Lacks. (Rebecca Lopez)

When Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in the late 1940s, little did she know her cells would change the evolution of modern medicine and stir up a major ethical controversy in the medical community.

Professors Pete Murray (philosophy), Basil Smith (humanities), and Emily Quinlan (business law) discussed Lacks at a panel discussion yesterday at Saddleback College.

Unbeknownst to Lacks, she would change the course of modern medicine by going to Dr. Howard W. Jones to receive treatment for cancer in 1951.  

Rebecca Skloot documented Lack’s story in her book,“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Lack’s cells, known as HeLa, ended up vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Lack’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance, according to Skoot’s website.  The film version was released on HBO on April 22, starring Oprah Winfrey who portray’s Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. 

“There are real possible harms, that come from making our genetic information readily available. Knowledge about our DNA are becoming more and more informative,” Smith said.

The controversy all began in the late ’40s when Lacks, an African-American woman, fell ill went to Dr. Guy, a medical doctor in Southern Virginia, according to Murray.

“Even though race was an issue in that era, there just simply was no ethical protocol for how to treat African American patients,” Murray said. “Dr. Guy took a sample of tissue from Henrietta. This act was not particularly illegal but it was against her knowledge.”

What the doctor discovered was the rapid regeneration of Henrietta’s cells. The controversy has sent the scientific world with questions about the ideal that compensation should be provided to Lack’s family.

“Science matters a lot more than the individual,” Murray said. “I thought the book was informative and I think a lot of people say Rebekka is exploiting them, but I think she worked differently than other journalists at the time. She focused on telling the story of the family.”

The cells later named HeLa cells would gain way more notoriety than Henrietta who died at the age of 31.

“I thought the panel was really good, especially hearing it from people with doctorates is different than students just basing their opinions of what they read,” said panel attendee Miranda Kalagian.”

Most of those who attended the panel were respectful audience members, although a few attendees expressed the issue made them uncomfortable how they felt about the issue.

Alexandra Marcus, a pre-med student, said she felt intimidated by the topic.

“You can’t force people to do the right thing, just because it’s the right thing to do. I think if human nature worked that way we would not have issues of health care, hunger and people on the street,” Marcus said.

Attendees were invited to discuss the issue and the panel’s comments. 

The book is this year’s One Book, One College and is available to students, faculty and staff for no charge.