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Permission for doctors to use anyone’s cells or body tissue at that time was traditionally not obtained, especially from patients seeking care in public hospitals. The irony was that Johns Hopkins (1795-1873), an abolitionist and philanthropist, founded the hospital in 1889 to make medical care available to the poor. Informed Consent as a doctrine came into practice in the late 1970s, nearly three decades after Henrietta Lack’s death. The new practice grew out of the embarrassment over WWII Nazi medical experiments and the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment of 1932-1972.

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The use of primates in research today is focused predominantly on major infectious diseases, such as treatments for tuberculosis, important neurological studies and new treatments for paralysis. In addition, UK and international law is clear that the vast majority of medicines intended for human use cannot be licensed without testing on animals, and primates are used for some of this testing, but only where they are shown to be the most appropriate species. While the coalition recognises the importance of such use of animals, we are implementing a plan to develop and adopt more non-animal alternatives in the UK and globally.

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The triumph of 21st century free market biotechnology, the medical-industrial complex, and continuing health inequalities by race were all epitomized by the ongoing exploitation of Henrietta Lacks’s cells. By 1993, her only surviving daughter, Deborah Lacks-Pullum, was fighting to understand the continuing existence of her mother as the smallest unit of life. She had to confront the mind-bending cultural incompetency and insensitivity of the bio-medical profession. Researchers “communicated” with Lacks family members in what can only be described as academic gibberish. She wrestled with inadequate and misleading information, such as statement that what was the very essence of her mother, through cell-fusion, could now be combined with plants and animals.

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Why do scientists use animals in research? - the APS

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G. Institutional Responsibilities

Sources:
Rebecca Skloot, (New York: Random House, 2010); James Jones, (New York: The Free Press, 1992); Susan Reverby, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Harriet Washington, (New York: Doubleday, 2007); and Paul Starr, (Basic Books, 1982).

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The life and death of Henrietta Lacks is a cautionary tale that reflects the inherent contradiction between the stated purpose of medical research to provide benefit to human kind and the reality of blatant profiteering in the name of the advancement of science. Rebecca Skloot was not the first writer to investigate institutional racism in medicine and this treatise should not be taken as a thorough review of her impressive research for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Yet since the book’s publication in 2010, bio-medical institutions have successfully adopted the tactics of politicians and movie stars when caught engaging in bad behaviour. Slick websites under bio-medical sponsorship which pay homage to Henrietta Lacks, have sprung up like weeds in a garden. Self-invited speakers come forth admitting institutional shortcomings but never institutional guilt. Carefully worded statements crafted by well-paid attorneys declare that the academic research institutions they represent made no money from the Lacks cells. They fail to mention the incredible amount of prestige and grant-funding the He-La line brought and continues to bring those institutions. The tragedy of the Henrietta Lacks saga should remind all of us, and especially those of us in the medical profession, that we have a responsibility to protect, not profit from, the bodies of those we serve including the smallest piece of those bodies, the human cell.