S4L Book Club – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Chapter 17 explains the immoral research that doctors were performing on uninformed patients using HeLa cells. The chapter describes why the National Institutes of Health (NIH) determined that medical research involving human subjects had to be approved.

  1. In your opinion, was the cancer research Dr. Chester Southam performed on patients truly immoral, illegal, and deplorable? Why or why not?
  2. What were the dangers and benefits of Southam’s research?
  3. How did the Nuremberg Code and the NIH affect the medical laws in place today?
  4. Predict what will happen to cancer research and scientific progress now the NIH has cracked down on medical ethics.

      Categories: Reading

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      1. I’m afraid I need a refresher on the details of Southam’s research, and I don’t have the book on hand. I probably even glossed over some of that if it got too gruesome for me.

        I recall there were experiments done on people without their knowledge: diseased cells injected into them, among countless other things. That’s the equivalent of a physical attack: assault, battery, even, possibly, manslaughter and murder. Egad!

        Sometimes patients thought they were getting treatment when they were instead lab subjects.

        The benefit, of course, is that the easiest and most reliable way to test and discover what drugs or diseases will do to the human body is to test them on a human body.

        The Nuremberg Code and guidelines established by the NIH were early attempts to define research ethics and protect uninformed people. Those were the first steps toward whatever medical and research laws exist today. I don’t know what the laws are, and new ones continue to be made. All sorts of new technology and knowledge is leading to all sorts of new research and dilemmas.

        The book seemed to suggest that policy-makers initially sided with scientists on some issues because they were concerned that individual tissue donors would impede research progress if allowed to profit from the sale of their samples. Now, however, with the power on the side of research and and commercial systems that support research, it turns out individuals are still impeding progress—it’s just that those individuals aren’t the tissue donors, they’re the researchers and drug developers, etc.

        It seems any way you slice it, when people are motivated by money, priorities shift. It doesn’t matter which side of an issue those people are on.