Did you know? Some scientists have done bold experiments and treatments, such as injecting cancer cells into healthy humans.
Johns Hopkins University has preserved the world's most powerful cancer cell, the Hela cell, which was one of the first human cells to be "immortalized". Cancer cell preservation can help scientists to study the pathological process of cancer in more detail.
How did you get this cancer cell? Why is it called a "Hela cell"? Is there a story about it at Johns Hopkins University? What were the early cancer experiments like? In this article, we will answer these questions by looking at the acquisition of HELLA cells and human experiments with HELLA cells. We will see in the article how scientists did this daring experiment to find the answer to the question of whether you can get cancer by injecting cancer cells into a healthy person.
Experiments from cancer patients
Let's take a step back in time to the 1950s, when Chester Southam, a prestigious virologist who was also a therapeutic physician, was conceiving his new idea. The emergence of cancer had caused all kinds of uneasiness in the world of medicine, and one had never found such a case where, regardless of the treatment, the patient suffering from cancer would eventually die a painful death.
The more advanced treatment option at the time was radiation therapy, which irradiated the patient's cancer site with radium radiation. Although radiation therapy can effectively control the growth of cancer cells in the early stage, it can also irritate patients and bring them other discomforts, and once the cancer reaches the later stage, even radiation therapy cannot catch up with the proliferation of cancer cells unless the dose is increased, but then the patient is likely to die during the treatment.
Is there a more advanced treatment available? Southam thought of "Hela cells" in the laboratory, which are cancer cells obtained not long ago. In known experiments on rats, it was learned that Hela cells would grow tumors if injected into rats, would it be the same in humans?
The reason for this thought and concern comes from virology research on Hela cells, which are now present in numerous laboratories around the world and have been used by scientists to create vaccines for cold and flu viruses. But the ingredients in the vaccine are impure and contain cancer cells left behind, and no one knows what will happen to it, will it give people cancer or not?
On the other hand, unlike today's cytopathic theory, the prevailing view in the medical community at the time was that cancer was caused by a viral infection or a defective immune system. And Southam himself, as one of the directors of the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Center in the United States, agreed with this view. In response, Southam made a bold decision to use Hela cells to test this idea and theory.
In 1954, Southam recruited a number of cancer patients and hoped to find some breakthroughs in cancer patients. The experiment was simple in terms of process, directly injecting patients with Hela cell salt solution, and then marking the patients to see if Hela cells would cause cancer.
For the record, Southam completed the injection on a woman with leukemia, and 5 million Hela cells were injected into her body and left ink dot markings. The same approach was used in a dozen subsequent patients for the study, and to conceal his true purpose, Southam's explanation was to test the immune system, so these cancer patients were unaware that they had received cancer cell injections.
Shortly after completing the injection, the cancer cells began to redden and swell in the large arms of some patients, and after about 6 or 7 days, hard tumors began to appear at the injection site. Sotham did not completely remove these hard tumors in order to know if the patient's immune system could fight the cancer cells and if the cancer cells would spread. But it didn't take long for the tumors to grow larger and larger, and even after they were removed, they would grow back. In some patients, the cancer cells had spread to the lymph nodes at a later stage and the situation was very bad.
But Southam argues that the data from these studies are still insufficient; after all, they themselves developed cancer, which makes it impossible to say whether the Hela cells induced the cancerous lesions or the cancer patients' own tissue lesions. The entire study was not only difficult to illustrate, but also lacked controls. So Southam decided to do another set of control experiments, and the experimental subjects were chosen from the healthy population.
The proliferation of human experimentation
It is not so easy to conduct experimental research on healthy humans because no one would want to contribute their body to an unknown experiment. But not so with prison inmates. These special groups are often forced by social pressure as well as moral and conscientious condemnation, and some of them hope to accomplish their own salvation in some way.
In those crazy times, whether the prisoners had such ideas or not, there existed in most prisons to use prisoners for various experiments. Then in 1956, Southam posted his medical advertisement in a prison in Ohio. This was chosen as a recruiting site because a number of Ohio inmates had conducted scientific experiments and were cooperative with scientific research.
The ad announced that only 25 volunteers needed to be called for cancer research, and after a few days of solicitation, the number of volunteers actually reached more than 150. After the recruitment of personnel was completed, Southam and colleagues conducted human experiments on 65 prisoners in June 1956.
After Hela cells were injected into the inmates' bodies, it didn't take long for the tumors to grow out of their arms, just like the cancer patients before them. But unlike the cancer patients, they were able to rely on their own immunity to resist the invasion of cancer cells. Southam found in subsequent injections that as the number of injections increased, the experimenter's body became more responsive to the cancer cells, the whole process resembling an immune stress mechanism.
From this, we can see that both normal people and cancer patients will inevitably get cancer as long as they receive cancer injections. In contrast, there is a clear difference between healthy people and cancer patients in this piece of resistance.
That's not all; in the next few years, Southam conducted human experiments with other cancer cells. By one count he gave injections to more than 600 experimenters, half of whom were cancer patients. For all of these experiments, Southam interpreted them as simple cancer tests, believing that by recording when rejection occurred, he could detect cancer that had not yet been detected.
Had the entire experiment been explained to the patients, it is clear that they would most likely have refused to participate, and for the sake of his own research interests, Southam chose to deceive his patients and participants. At the time, there was no strict regulatory mechanism to make a reasonable determination of such experiments, so Southam was exploiting a legal loophole. But where did the cancer cells for this experiment come from?
Human Rights? Or is it an experiment?
The acquisition of cancer cells is actually a black history that predates Southam's experimental research, or most of the later medical research on cancer, in terms of time.
Heretta Lacks is an African American, and her ancestors first came from the Negro era, so generations in her family have worked on Negro farms. After the black movement, although Lux's family was freed from slavery, they were still not freed from working on farms.
Lux's parents passed away when she was very young, so she has been living with relatives and working on a tobacco farm for as long as she can remember. Lux's life did not take much of a journey, as she gave birth to a boy at the age of 14 and has been on the road to supporting her family ever since.
But when Lux was around 30 years old, she felt something strange about her body, especially near her uterus where she would have some bouts of pain from time to time. To find out the cause, Lux went to Johns Hopkins University, the only hospital here willing to treat black patients, for tests.
After a basic investigation of her reproductive history as well as her life history, the treating physician determined that Lux had malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix. During her subsequent hospitalization, Lux was treated with radium tube insertion, although during her treatment, the hospital did not inform Lux that cervical samples were taken. Instead, these samples were provided to George Otto Gay, a cancer researcher at the hospital at the time.
In the course of later studies, it was discovered that Lux's cancer cells were very powerful and were able to proliferate indefinitely, bypassing the Hayflick limit. After Lux's death, the cancer cells were named "Hela cells" and were later given to several experimental research laboratories. Because of the proliferation and invasive ability of Hela cells can help scientists to further study cancer pathology, if other cancer cells to study, they will die in a few weeks in the petri dish.
In addition, it was the first human cell to be successfully propagated outside the human body, and many subsequent cancer-related studies have been done on the basis of Hela cells. Examples include polio vaccines, human papillomavirus research and sex steroid hormone research, and have been important in genetics and space microbiology.
The problem, however, is that the scientific results of all this were not communicated to Hela herself, including her family, and no researcher was informed of the purposefulness of the medical experiments during the relevant experiments. Regarding the issue of informed consent, the cancer cell injection experiment was later accused of lacking professionalism and ethics.
For Lux's family, these medical institutions have gained a great deal from using Lux's cells to complete their research, but have not given them the appropriate care. Many of Lux's family members did not even have health insurance, and they were not informed of Lux's contributions to the medical community until the incident came to light.
The resulting case follow-up also influenced the establishment of the Common Rule in 1981, which requires physicians to inform patients of all details of their treatment as well as their medical plans, and if there is a donation act it must be named by a code name. It was Lux's family who suffered the most from this medical experiment, in addition to those volunteers who were unaware of it.
It is good to know that the woman was not forgotten and years after the whole event was completed in retrospect, the unveiling of the statue of Herietta Lacks was completed in October 2021 in the Royal Fort in Bristol.