A new article reconsiders Henrietta Lacks and the immortal HeLa cells that were obtained from her rare cancer tumor in the 1950s; cells that still replicate and are used in biomedical laboratories all over the world:
- “Representing life as opposed to being: the bio-objectification process of the HeLa cells and its relation to personalized medicine”
There is a lot going on in the article, making it difficult to summarize. As I understand it, though, the article focuses on two fields of tension when biological samples from humans are used in biomedical research – tensions between:
- being human; and representing biological life,
- the value of the one; and the value of the many.
Both fields of tension intersect in the case of Henrietta Lacks:
- Henrietta Lacks was a human being, existing in a human world; but HeLa cells function as “bio-objects” representing biological life.
- Henrietta Lacks was one unique individual; but HeLa cells have come to represent humanity.
These tensions highlight the interchange between research and society. We exist as human beings; but by donating samples to research, we also contribute to representing biological life. We are unique individuals; but through our samples, we also contribute to representing what is general.
The authors cite the European biobank infrastructure, BBMRI, as an approach to governance and ownership of knowledge and property that begins to address these tensions in interesting, new ways. The article also speaks in favour of interdisciplinary collaboration between the life sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, to understand the fields of tension that arise when individual human beings contribute to medical research.