By Roland A. Pattillo, MD, FACOG (retired)
The spread of viruses and bacteria is something we experience throughout our lives. From the common cold to more serious health issues like HIV/AIDS and Ebola, we fear mass transmission. In 2020, this fear became very real with COVID-19. But today, there is hope.
Others of my era probably remember the devastation caused by polio. Now there are almost no cases. This came about because of a powerful vaccine and global immunization efforts. Vaccines are not new to us. However, some still hesitate because of past abuses in medical research. But these abuses could not happen today – there are laws to protect us.
We learned recently that several COVID-19 vaccines have been approved. Vaccination efforts are underway. This happened much faster than usual, thanks to the efforts of scientists around the world. And one Ms. Henrietta Lacks.
Before my involvement, the life story of Henrietta Lacks was hidden for many years. Today, the story of the Lacks family is well known. In 1951, doctors took cancer cells from Ms. Lacks, a Black woman, without her knowledge or consent. Scientists used these cells to create trillions of new cells for use in medical research – HeLa cells.
Scientific discoveries using HeLa cells have improved the health, quality of life and longevity for millions of people. They have become the “gold standard” in cellular research and were used in studies of COVID-19 and potential vaccines.
The All of Us research program aims to be a resource – like HeLa cells – that will help advance research and accelerate the pace of medical breakthroughs. How? By creating an inclusive and secure database of health information from a million or more people.
The COVID-19 vaccine is a triumph for science and All of Us is a triumphant step toward diversity in medical research. So, let us celebrate, and be counted!
Dr. Roland Pattillo was a professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin where he created JAR cells and CASKI cells using HeLa technology. Upon retirement he moved to Atlanta where he led the creation and development of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Morehouse School of Medicine. Now retired, Dr. Pattillo continues to consult on stem cells and the HeLa legacy in science and the support of the Lacks family.