Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 17

By Rebecca Skloot

Chapter 17

Illegal, Immoral, and Deplorable (1954-1966)

  • Chester Southam, a virologist at Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, started to wonder if HeLa cells could infect the scientists handling them.
  • So he decided to test his theories by infecting a sick woman with Henrietta's cells (without the woman's consent, natch).
  • He did this to other patients and told them it was to test their immune systems, which was technically true if you're not worried much about ethics.
  • Southam watched the injection site to see if anything grew there. It did. He was able to remove the cancerous growths in all but four cases.
  • In those cases, the cancer returned. In one case, it metastasized.
  • Southam now needed healthy subjects to inject, so he recruited them from the Ohio State Penitentiary system (prisoners were considered a good pool for scientific research—a captive audience, you might say).
  • So Southam injected the men with HeLa cells. It turns out that healthy immune systems fought off the disease, and got more efficient at doing so with more injections.
  • Great observation, right? But Southam wound up injecting hundreds of people with cancer without their consent or knowledge.
  • When confronted about the ethical dubiousness of his procedures, Southam basically said that people were too ignorant to understand the importance of the study and that they would balk when they heard the word "cancer."
  • Oh, okay, then.
  • In other words, he knew they'd refuse his offer to be injected once they heard the "c" word.
  • Southam finally hit a brick wall when three Jewish doctors, well aware of the atrocious experiments conducted by the Nazis, refused to carry out his injection experiments.
  • Skloot explains the history of these Nazi experimentations and the results after the war.
  • The Nuremburg Code set forth 10 points for ethical scientific experimentation.
  • But it wasn't made into law in the U.S. And because no one wanted to be accused of hindering scientific progress, experimentation was still hugely unregulated in Southam's day.
  • Informed consent, Skloot writes, wasn't even a term until 1957, when a patient suffered paralysis during what he believed to be a routine surgery and successfully sued the surgeon.
  • But the judge's ruling that doctor's needed to get patient consent for treatment didn't apply to research.
  • So Southam was able to get around the three dissenting doctors and have his way with patients.
  • The docs resigned in protest and a member of the hospital's board of directors (who happened to be a lawyer) decided to take it to the next level.
  • This lawyer brought Southam's questionable behavior to light and things heated up fast. There were proponents on both sides of the argument, some calling for Southam's medical license to be revoked.
  • Some scientists rushed to support Southam, using the "Everybody's doing it" defense.
  • His license was suspended for a year, but he came out smelling like a rose: ultimately, Southam was made president of that American Association for Cancer Research. Seriously.
  • But the National Institute of Health took notice. It found that very few of their funded researchers had any version of "informed consent" forms for human subjects used in experiments.
  • The NIH ruled that all projects they funded had to be examined by an independent board to determine if informed consent had properly been given by subjects.
  • And here's the really bad news: Southam's study was just the tip of the iceberg. There were hundreds of unethical experiments being run in this era—some including sick children.

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