Think of the person behind the cells: the motivations of biomedical research

Born in 1920, Henrietta Lacks lived in Virginia and Maryland, worked as a tobacco farmer, and mothered five children.  At age 31, her life was unfortunately cut short by cervical cancer.  Since her death, she has helped catalyze numerous biomedical discoveries.

Upon treatment at Johns Hopkins, Henrietta’s physician obtained a tumor sample.  To his amazement, her cells survived and divided in a petri dish.  Today, her cells are still used in labs around the globe.  Henrietta’s cells, or HeLa cells as they are referred, provide scientists an unlimited supply of human cells in which they can model diseases, study pathologies, and investigate new therapies.  Indeed, Jonas Salk utilized HeLa cells to help create the polio vaccine in 1955.

In my research in neurology and oncology, I’ve used HeLa cells to learn about molecular mechanisms that produce illnesses.  I desire to leverage this precise knowledge to create new therapeutics.  I love my lab work.  I find it extremely exciting to uncover insights that will ultimately improve lives.

Yet for all my love of research, I acknowledge that lab life, surrounded by cells, mice, and often detached from the people my research benefits, creates an environment where the pure motivations of medical research — to enhance and support life — can be obscured.   Non-scientific factors — to secure funding, produce publications, and gain prestige while advancing in academia or industry — can shift one’s focus towards these measures of productivity and away from what initially drew him or her to the field.

As a young researcher, I am beginning to understand the various pressures that scientists face.  As I gathered data for a publication or crafted my first grant proposal, I noticed my limited attention swaying towards these goals, diluting my genuine desire to make life-saving discoveries.

These non-scientific pressures seem ingrained in the system through which science operates in our society.  They do, in fact, offer some benefits to science by providing incentives to yield results.  However, I strongly believe it’s vital that medical scientists preserve the dream to alleviate human suffering as their prime motivation.

The tragic death of a childhood friend after a courageous battle with cancer in the summer of 2017 helped reorient my focus and provide clarity for my research goals.  I, and likely most medical scientists, enter this field to end disease and prevent what my friend and others endure.  I urge researchers, particularly those experiencing career stresses or feeling removed from the population their work supports, to take a mental step out of the lab to appreciate the broader relevance and value of their investigations.

Scientists can proactively engage with those whom their research benefits.  Volunteering in hospitals, shadowing physicians, and reading books exploring the sick patient’s perspective (I personally suggest When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, On Pluto by Greg O’Brien, and Brain Storms by Jon Palfreman) provide opportunities to interact or empathize with those we seek to serve.  These human connections can undoubtedly ignite a researcher’s passion for discovery.

While shadowing, I once observed a physician deliver a cancer diagnosis.  Fear and uncertainty covered the patient’s face as he grappled with the words he’d just received.  Experiencing the gravity of this situation firsthand enriched my compassion for patients in such scenarios and provided unparalleled motivation for my scientific pursuits.

I ask medical scientists to take initiative in keeping the human aspect of research prominent in their minds.  Remember the people that your work helps.  Let these people, their lives, their health, their families, and their friends be your ultimate inspiration.  Yes — publications, grants, and promotions are part of our profession — but these should not be the supreme drivers of our efforts.  I believe keeping the pure and sincere desire to aid others as our most cherished goal will bear us more meaningful, productive, and satisfying careers.

We are certainly entering an era bursting with biomedical promise.  Headlines break quite often praising new drugs or research endeavors leveraging breakthrough technologies such as CRISPR, immunotherapy, optogenetics, or cryo-electron microscopy.  I believe we will soon have effective therapies for many previously untreatable diseases.  As researchers embrace this unfurling new power, I hope we retain in mind the context and real-world importance of our discoveries.

The story of Henrietta Lacks and her wildly proliferative cells always strikes me for its irony.  The cancer cells that once killed Henrietta now fuel experiments saving countless lives.  The name of the HeLa cell-line, an abbreviation for Henrietta’s own name, immediately summons her story to mind each time I use her cells.  The thought of the human being once composed of the very cells I hold reminds me of the individuals I aspire to help.

To all medical scientists, next time using HeLa cells, think of the person and the beating heart that once shared the same genome as the cells with which you work.  More broadly, dutifully remember and appreciate those battling disease and let these people bolster your passions as you discover insights and technologies for their benefit.

Samuel Falkson is a cancer researcher and a 2017-2018 United States Fulbright Scholar to Israel in biochemistry.

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