morality and medicine


Henrietta Lacks: the mother of modern medicine

How did cells taken from a poor black woman in 1951 come to unlock some of the biggest advances in science? Lacks, a 31-year-old mother of five, died of cervical cancer on 4 October 1951; and while her disease was a tragedy for her family, for the world of medical research – and beyond that, every one of us on the planet – it was something of a miracle.

Because, in the years since her death, Lacks’s cells – taken from her tumour while she was undergoing surgery – have been responsible for some of the most important medical advances of all time. The polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping and IVF: all these health milestones, and many more, owe everything to the life, and death, of a young mother.

Lacks’s cells – known as HeLa, using the first two letters of each of her names – became the first immortal human cell line in history. Scientists at the hospital where she died, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, had been working for years to try to start a continuously reproducing cell line – but the cells always died. Lacks’s were the first that “took”, introducing a constantly reproducing line of cells that are literally, to give them their scientific definition, immortal. (Ordinary cells taken from a human body and kept in a lab have a limited life span; however, an immortal cell line is cultured in a particular way so it has the ability to proliferate indefinitely.) Quite why hers were the cells that survived and reproduced, when those of hundreds of other patients had died, is unclear – but the best guess is that the reason was linked to the ferocity of her tumour, which seems to have been made more virulent by the fact that she also suffered from syphilis.

As soon as it was clear that HeLa would continue to reproduce, all kinds of research and experiments suddenly became possible. For a start, having living cells available outside the human body meant doctors could watch cell division taking place, and could also see how viruses behaved inside the cells. What’s more, it was possible to expose the cells to conditions that wouldn’t have been ethical if they were inside a human body – for example, doctors could bombard them with carcinogens, and watch the results.

In the years since 1951, HeLa cells have been exposed to endless toxins and infections; they’ve been zapped by radiation, and tested with countless drugs. And all this – and much, much more – has led to hundreds, if not thousands, of new pieces of knowledge, and helped to shape the way medicine moved in the second half of the 20th century and the first decade of this one. And there are certainly plenty of HeLa cells to go round, these days: one researcher has estimated that if you laid them all end-to-end, they’d wrap around the planet at least three times.

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For what it’s worth, I think you’re going to make an excellent surgeon. Your work ethic and your need for less sleep are like the perfect combination.

a compliment I received from a classmate today.

Not gonna lie, that made me feel gooooood. I think the peer compliments are just the best, because it’s coming from someone who is in the trenches with you, so they know exactly what’s going on and see you on the same level.

America has stopped promoting human beings with any shred of decency. We have bowed at the alter of the all mighty dollar and for our love of greed make excuses for the worst crimes and raise such detestable people, like Shkreli, to a hero of capital and industry. We get what we deserve. It is our own damn fault. We have allowed the Republic to be taken over by humans who lack a moral compass of any kind. All that is left for us is to decide whether or not we will take it back and once again seek to promote the best of what we are, instead of the least of what we have.

Met with a Holocaust survivor today

I cannot explain how AWESOME this man is. Saved nearly his entire family, escaped from the ghetto, fought for freedom in the forest as a partisan, smuggled guns (somehow) out of the ghetto and came to the USA to share his experiences and fight for equality, political literary and historical literacy in the US! I HAVE to write a post about his ESPECIALLY because I was just looking at what role science and medicine have (morally or otherwise) in situations of political conflict, political unrest and  war. 

Something i think we should be careful about is repeating the ways in which liberals frame injustices. What i mean specifically here is that i often see articles shared around that are highlighting some particularly visible or topical aspect of the capitalist system, but the critique is framed in moral terms. Like, “how dare they profit off of this!” For example, critiques about privatized health care frequently rely on a moral stance that medicine should not be something people profit off of.

The issue with this is that when we discuss particular aspects of capitalism in these terms, we imply that there are acceptable ways of making profit, whether we consciously realize this or not. It is one thing if highlighting shitty health care or particularly egregious labor practices is a mechanism through which we push people to reject capitalism as a system. But if you notice, this is almost never the case with these articles. The problem is framed not as a systemic one, but a problem of what “should” and “should not” be a source of profit.

Another example i saw recently was an article illuminating Uber’s new predatory leasing system. It’s shitty to be sure, but at one point in the article, a guy is quoted as saying, “this is clearly about profiting off of drivers” or something along those lines. Well, no shit! The article means to induce moral outrage about the particular way in which profit is being made in this case. That Uber is trying to make money by trapping drivers in a dependent situation is supposed to make us angry because “businesses shouldn’t make money like that.” But the implication is in turn that there are supposed to be acceptable ways of making profit.

In my opinion we shouldn’t share these sorts of articles without critical intervention, else we just end up being megaphones for the “left” faction of the bourgeoisie.