Thursday, December 6, 2012

Henrietta Lacks suffered the pain of cervical cancer; science and medicine benefitted financially, and her family is dirt poor (video)

In 1920 an estimated 53 African Americans were lynched; the 1920 Census noted there were 10, 463, 131 African American residing In the United States. The same year Marcus Gravey announced his “Back to Africa” movement. August 1, 1920 was also the year Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia. Her name is not in history books despite of the contributions her cancerous cells have made to medicine and research.

Henrietta and her husband  David Lacks
Lacks mother died when she was four; after which she went to Glover, Virginia to live with her grandfather, a tobacco farmer. By the time she was 14, Lacks had given birth to a daughter. When she was 20 she married her first cousin, David Lacks, the father of her children. They eventually moved to Baltimore in search of work for David.

“Shortly after Henrietta turned 30, she felt a knot in her lower stomach that she knew meant something was wrong. But with a husband and a house full of kids to take care of, Lacks could ill afford to worry for long; her family also had little money for a doctor's visit, and at the time, many hospitals offered African-American patients substandard treatment.

“Months later, after the birth of her fifth child, the knot was still there, so Lacks finally asked her husband to drive her to Johns Hopkins Hospital, the only medical facility nearby that saw "colored people" for free. There, the doctors diagnosed Lacks with stage I epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, which would require her to have radiation treatments a few times a month. During her first two-night stay in the hospital, doctors sliced several pieces of tissue from her cancerous tumor and placed them in a dish in the hopes of growing and studying them. Neither Lacks nor her family gave permission for her cells to be taken,” writes Allison Samuels for the Daily Beast, 2/13/201

Rebecca Sklott author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks writes: “On February 1, 1951, under the cover of a solitary tree, David Lacks stared through the window of his parked car, watching the rain fall. He and his five children, three still in diapers, sat outside Hopkins Hospital, waiting for Henrietta. A few days earlier, she had found blood spotting her underwear.

Howard Jones, a Hopkins physician, found a smooth eggplant-hued tumor glistening under the light on Henrietta's cervix. He touched its surface, shocked by its supple texture. Jones carefully cut a section of her quarter-sized tumor, sent it to the lab for a diagnosis, and sent Henrietta home with her family. Then came the news: the tumor was malignant.” 

According to Sklott, Henrietta was sent home after a couple of days, but eight days later she returned to John Hopkins for further treatment. The attending physician decided to “cover her cervix with radium in an attempt to kill the cancer. But before applying the first treatment, a young resident took one more sample.”

The cancer was too far along to cure. It was completely ravishing her body. Henrietta Lacks died a horrific death October 4, 1951. Sklott said Lacks was moaning, asking “the Lord to help her.”

Allison Samuels editorialized that, “Some 60 years after doctors committed what today would be an unconscionable violation of medical ethics, there's still only limited information on how often the practice of taking samples without consent was done to patients of poor backgrounds and limited education.

But Henrietta Lacks certainly wasn't the only African-American mistreated by the American medical establishment. Books such as Harriet Washington's Medical Apartheid have documented many cases of blatant misuse of medical practices on unknowing and unsuspecting black patients in the name of furthering science and discovering cures.”

Lacks' cells, called Hela cells, proved to be a gold mine for the medical world. Her cells have been the principal subject of 74,000 studies.  Financial fortunes were made and are continuing to be made today, but Lacks family have never benefitted from this discovery. Lacks family was not tole about the studies; therefore, they did not consent to the research boom.

When she died at age 31, Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave. In recent years the medical community donated money for a gravestone. Lacks surviving family members, still dirt poor, learned about the cells and their contribution to the medical world 25 years later.

The top photo to the left is the unmarked grave site of Henrietta Lacks, who was buried in a family's plot across the street from the family tobacco farm in Virginia. photo by Rebecca Sklott

Gravestone made possible with donations from medical community
Sklott writes about researching Henrietta Lacks story, not likely found in history books. “Eventually I tracked down a few magazine articles about her from the seventies. Ebony quoted Henrietta's husband saying, "All I remember is that she had this disease, and right after she died they called me in the office wanting to get my permission to take a sample of some kind. I decided not to let them."  

Jet magazine said the family was angry — angry that Henrietta's cells were being sold for twenty-five dollars a vial, and angry that articles had been published about the cells without their knowledge. "Pounding in the back of their heads was a gnawing feeling that science and the press had taken advantage of them."

Recently (2013) the National Institute of Health agreed with Lacks family that they should be some control of how Henrietta's genome is used. Unfortunately, they will not be rewarded financially. And despite of the agreement that was reached, the family was ignored again.

"Scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory published the genome of a line of HeLa cells, making it publicly available for downloading. Another study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health at the University of Washington, was about to be published in Nature. The Lacks family was made aware of neither project.

“I said, ‘No, this is not right,’ ” Jeri Lacks Whye, one of Henrietta Lacks’s grandchildren, said in an interview. “They should not have this up unless they have consent from the family.”

Officials at the National Institutes of Health now acknowledge that they should have contacted the Lacks family when researchers first applied for a grant to sequence the HeLa genome. They belatedly addressed the problem after the family raised its objections. (The Washington Post).

Henrietta Lacks is survived by her children, grand children and great-grandchildren.

For more information about Henrietta Lacks life as told  by Rebecca Sklott, key in her name on Google. Below is a interview with Sklott, in which she talks about Lacks.

YouTube Video

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