I research inflammatory bowel disease. A few days ago I started a new experiment, using human cells from a cell line called THP-1. Not being very familiar with these cells, I was interested in where they came from. The results of a Wikipedia search left me speechless. They are derived from the peripheral blood of a one year old human male with acute monocytic leukemia. One year old.
My son had his first birthday less than two weeks ago. On that day he had his first taste of cake (red velvet with buttercream frosting). The cells I am using in my experiment came from a little boy whose first birthday was likely his last. These cells are identical to those that used to course through the circulatory system of a little boy the same age as my mine. Through the arms he used to hold his favourite toys, crawl up the stairs, and hug his mum.
Cell lines are a population of genetically identical cells that are all descended from a single individual cell. Normally, cells don’t live forever. However if they have mutations that prevent their natural cell death from occurring they will madly proliferate, and given the right conditions, live forever. For a cell line to exist, these mutations are necessary. But in a living organism, these cells are cancer.
Journalist Rebecca Skloot deserves monumental credit for investigating the human story behind immortalized cell lines. Her Pulitzer prize winning book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” delves into the life of a woman whose cancerous cervical cells were used to establish the ‘HeLa’ cell line—the line used for most cancer research done today—without her knowledge or consent. The book humanized the woman whose cells have become immortalized in science, but also highlighted the ethical and legal complexities of using biological tissues in research.
It was in 1980 that the THP-1 cell line, established in a Japanese lab, was reported to the scientific community in a published paper. Based on some details in the paper, the cells were probably extracted from the little boy around 1977. Did his parents know his cells were cultivated into a cell line? Who owns the discarded biological tissues from patients and research participants? What level of control should donors have over their samples? Should we limit the rights of tissue donors in favour of the benefits of tissue-based research?
These are challenging moral and philosophical questions that legal experts are currently debating. I cannot comment on what ethical and legal frameworks were in place when the boy’s cells were extracted, and the THP-1 cell line established. I can tell you that in Canada, upon the parents’ request, the existence of THP-1 cell line would be disclosed. Additionally, the parents could withdraw their consent for the cells being used in research. Whether there is an obligation for researchers to disclose this information without the donor’s request is being debated. The profits from a commercial cell line would likely not be shared with the donor.
I can also tell you that in Canada, research involving human biological tissues involves intense scrutiny via the research ethics board, and similar protocols are in place in other countries. While it varies from country to country, human tissue-based research operates under the core principles of respect for human dignity, informed consent, patient privacy & confidentiality, minimizing harm, and maximizing benefit.
I can also tell you that THP-1 cells have contributed immeasurably towards our knowledge of the immune system, cancers, bacteria and viruses, and have played a key role in the development of drugs and vaccines. I can tell you that as a mother, I am conflicted about the thought of using the cells that killed my son for medical research. I can tell you as a scientist, I care both about the ethics of, and recognize the necessity for, tissue based research.
But I still wonder about that little boy with acute monocytic leukemia. According to WebMD, the survival rate for this kind of cancer is 24%. Did he survive? How was he feeling on that day his blood was drawn? Was he scared? Did his mum hold his hand? Did his parents know what happened to their son’s cells, that they inhabit research laboratories across the globe? Do they have any idea that the mother of a one-year old son is thinking about theirs?