Can blockchain help solve the Henrietta Lacks problem?

Can blockchain help solve the Henrietta Lacks problem?

Marielle Gross, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, shows patients a new app that tracks how their samples are used during biomedical research.

Marielle Gross

Science has come a long way since Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman from Baltimore, succumbed to cervical cancer at age 31 in 1951 -- only eight months after her diagnosis. Since then, research involving her cancer cells has advanced scientific understanding of the human papilloma virus, polio vaccines, medications for HIV/AIDS and in vitro fertilization.

Today, the World Health Organization reports that those cells are essential in mounting a COVID-19 response. But they were commercialized without the awareness or permission of Lacks or her family, who have filed a lawsuit against a biotech company for profiting from these “HeLa” cells.

While obtaining an individual's informed consent has become standard procedure before the use of tissues in medical research, many patients still don’t know what happens to their samples. Now, a new phone-based app is aiming to change that.

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Susan Kreimer
Susan Kreimer is a New York-based freelance journalist who has followed the landscape of health care since the late 1990s, initially as a staff reporter for major daily newspapers. She writes about breakthrough studies, personal health, and the business of clinical practice. Raised in the Chicago area, she holds a B.A. in Journalism/Mass Communication and French, with minors in German and Russian, from the University of Iowa and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Therapies for Healthy Aging with Dr. Alexandra Bause
Sabine van Erp / Pixabay

My guest today is Dr. Alexandra Bause, a biologist who has dedicated her career to advancing health, medicine and healthier human lifespans. Dr. Bause co-founded a company called Apollo Health Ventures in 2017. Currently a venture partner at Apollo, she's immersed in the discoveries underway in Apollo’s Venture Lab while the company focuses on assembling a team of investors to support progress. Dr. Bause and Apollo Health Ventures say that biotech is at “an inflection point” and is set to become a driver of important change and economic value.


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Matt Fuchs
Matt Fuchs is the host of the Making Sense of Science podcast and served previously as the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. He writes as a contributor to the Washington Post, and his articles have also appeared in the New York Times, WIRED, Nautilus Magazine, Fortune Magazine and TIME Magazine. Follow him @fuchswriter.
This man spent over 70 years in an iron lung. What he was able to accomplish is amazing.

Paul Alexander spent more than 70 years confined to an iron lung after a polio infection left him paralyzed at age 6. Here, Alexander uses a mirror attached to the top of his iron lung to view his surroundings.

Allison Smith / The Guardian

It’s a sight we don’t normally see these days: A man lying prone in a big, metal tube with his head sticking out of one end. But it wasn’t so long ago that this sight was unfortunately much more common.

In the first half of the 20th century, tens of thousands of people each year were infected by polio—a highly contagious virus that attacks nerves in the spinal cord and brainstem. Many people survived polio, but a small percentage of people who did were left permanently paralyzed from the virus, requiring support to help them breathe. This support, known as an “iron lung,” manually pulled oxygen in and out of a person’s lungs by changing the pressure inside the machine.

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.