Who owns HeLa?

We have mentioned Henrietta Lacks a few times in class, the individual whose cells have done more than anyone else’s in the advancement of modern medicine.  The HeLa cell line, the first “immortal” cell line ever developed, has been used to develop the world’s most important vaccines and cancer medications, as well as spurring advances in gene mapping, cloning and IVF.  But all of this was done without her or her family’s consent, and her family was unaware of the cell line until 20 years after Lacks’s death.  Now HeLa has been sequenced, and her genetic information published- once again, without her family’s permission.  This is legal, but is it ethical?


Rebecca Skloot, whose book brought the story of Henrietta Lacks to popular attention a few years ago, has written a nice editorial about just how problematic the publication of HeLa is, and how poorly the law has kept up with the implications of advancements in genomic technology.  If HeLa shows a predisposition toward Alzheimer’s, for example, this may have repercussions for the life insurance her descendants can get.

Rumor and murder of medical workers

In class, we’ve briefly mentioned polio still being endemic in only three countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria).  In December and January, more than 10 vaccination workers were killed in Pakistan.  Micah pointed out that these workers are often trained individuals from the local community, making the loss far greater than just the polio vaccine,but the loss of a person who was knowledgeable, capable, and willing to be a medical worker.  Now, nine polio vaccination workers have been killed in Nigeria.  From the BBC article:

Some Nigerian Muslim leaders have previously opposed polio vaccinations, claiming they could cause infertility.

On Thursday, a controversial Islamic cleric spoke out against the polio vaccination campaign, telling people that new cases of polio were caused by contaminated medicine.

More information about polio can be found on the World Health Organization’s fact sheet. Great progress has been made — the disease was endemic in 125 countries as recently as 1988 — but it is a hard fight in the remaining three.

ONE campaign video about Benin is actually good!

I’ve gotten so used to Benin getting totally ignored (or when it is mentioned in world media at all, getting reduced to a few tired stereotypes) that I didn’t have high hopes for this documentary about one of my favorite topics: the increasingly collaborative relationship between traditional healers and doctors.  But it’s actually really good!  This video is part of a campaign to raise awareness and funds for badly needed vaccines in the country.