HeLa Cells and Cell Cultures

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HeLa Cells and Cell Cultures

HeLa Cells refer to a particular line of human cancer cells that have been cultured and grown for decades and used in scientific research all over the world (Lucey, Nelson-Reese, Hutchins, 2009). These cells were extracted during a biopsy and were shown to multiply rapidly in culture so this group of cells was the first human cells to be essentially "immortalized" (Lucey, Nelson-Reese, Hutchins, 2009). Since this time, HeLa Cells have been multiplied and sold to researchers and used to advance medical research and technology. The use of these cells has a particular advantage in scientific research because of the precedent; they have been thoroughly studied so that the mechanics of the specific cell are very well known and that knowledge is accessible. This is important because this means that many variables can be controlled, leading to clear and verifiable results.

These cells came from a woman named Henrietta Lacks, hence the nomenclature HeLa, a young woman living in Baltimore, Maryland. Lacks sought medical attention at the John Hopkins Gynaecology Clinic where she was diagnosed with cervical cancer (Lucey, Nelson-Rees, Hutchins, 2009). She received radiation treatment which was unsuccessful and she died several months later (Lucey, Nelson-Rees, Hutchins, 2009). The cells taken during her biopsy were given to a researcher, George Gey, who was attempting to culture human cells for many years prior. In finding the culture-potential of these particular cells, Gey multiplied them and distributed them to fellow researchers (Wilson, 2016).

Ethical concerns

There is much ethical controversy that surrounds the use of HeLa cells in biomedical research, much of which came up many years after the wide distribution of these cells and their cultures. Much of this comes from the circumstances in which the original cells were collected. There is no evidence that Henrietta Lacks was aware that her biopsy was being sent to other clinicians and used for research purposes outside of her cancer (Wilson, 2016). She died soon after her biopsy was taken and never had the chance to consent to react to the widespread distribution and use of her own cells (Wilson, 2016; Lucey, Nelson-Rees, Hutchins, 2009). These truths are inflated by the fact that Henrietta was a low-income black woman, and therefore a highly marginalized member of society. Gey who first cultivated the woman’s cells went on to receive high praise and build a reputation in popular media off of this research without mentioning Henrietta Lacks herself until the early 70s in his obituary (Wilson, 2016). The specific ethical theories of utilitarianism and deontology will help in breaking down the moral considerations of this.

Utilitarianism, being a form of consequentialism, focuses on the ability of a decision to bring about pleasurable outcomes and limit harm(Sinnott-Armstrong, 2019). In this context, HeLa cells have brought about much utility in the world by being a staple in biomedical research and their use in new discoveries, for example in the development of a polio vaccine(Wilson, 2016). The development of HeLa cells cultures has contributed to countless advancements in medical sciences, which have saved lives and pushed forward education and knowledge. The taking of these cells was of no harm to Henrietta Lacks herself has her it did not affect her disease outcome or treatment, and she died soon after from the natural course of the disease. Her family may have suffered some psychological harm from the use of a lost loved one’s body and name in popular science media. This harm does not offset the major positive outcomes which has come from Gey’s decision, so the decision would therefore be judged as moral through utilitarianism.

'Deontological ethics does not focus on the outcomes of the choice but instead on the decision itself and how it upheld certain duties(Alexander, Moore, 2016). Specifically, a perfect duty is one that involves using a person as an end and not simply as a means(Alexander, Moore, 2016). So, a decision would be considered amoral if it uses a person as a means to an end; as a result, deontological ethics values autonomy. Henrietta Lacks was used as a means to Gey’s research means and her role in this decision was not considered. Her autonomy was disregarded by the doctors and researchers who did not inform her or allow her to consent to the use of her body in research. For this reason, the decision to culture Henrietta’s cells and distribute them would be judged as amoral through a deontological lens because the physicians and researchers went against their perfect duties.


Alexander, L., Moore, M., (2016). Deontological Ethics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/

Lucey, B.P., Nelson-Rees, W.A., Hutchins, G.M. (2009). Henrietta Lacks, HeLa Cells, and Cell Culture Contamination. Arch Pathol Lab Med, 133, 1463–1467. Retrieved from: https://web-a-ebscohost-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=16752f24-4279-4e04-8361-21d09c9361ac%40sdc-v-sessmgr03

Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2019). Consequentialism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/

Wilson, D. A. (2016). Troubled Past? Reassessing Ethics in the History of Tissue Culture. Health Care Anal, 24, 246–259. Retrieved from: https://doi-org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/10.1007/s10728-015-0304-0