Editorial 1: An immortal cell line and reparation, 70 years later


  • If much of the debate in health care is about equity, in a sense practically every innovation in biological care has been based on a con job, a steal. The biggest strike to rectify decades of wrong came last week, when biotech company Thermo Fisher Scientific came to an agreement with the family of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were removed from her without her permission when under treatment in a hospital in Maryland.


  • These cells went on to become an immortalised cell line called HeLa (for Henrietta Lacks) used in scientific research.
  • It is reportedly the most commonly used cell line across the world, and yet neither the patient, a 31- year old poor, African American woman nor her family were acknowledged or compensated for the contribution.
  • The cells were taken from the patient when she was under treatment for cervical cancer. That wrong was righted last week.

Cell culture

  • Cell culture is the process by which cells are grown in a petridish, in a lab in controlled conditions, outside of their natural environment.
  • These cells are used in critical and path breaking scientific research to develop drugs, vaccines (polio), study the effects of radiation, how pathogens affect humans, gene mapping and the list could go on.
  • Usually cells cultured in the lab from human cells could be kept alive for only a few days, subject to the phenomenon of cellular senescence, or the cessation of cell division.
  • However, all that changed when Henrietta Lacks appeared on the firmament of cell biology with a bunch of cells that behaved like nothing scientists had ever seen before, allowing them to create an ‘immortalised cell line’.

Immortalised cell line

  • An immortalised cell line is a population of cells which would normally not proliferate indefinitely but, due to mutations, have achieved the ability to keep on dividing, never reaching the point of senescence.
  • Johns Hopkins biologist George Otto Gey was initially foxed by the fact that Henrietta’s cells were behaving differently when dunked in a culture medium and stirred in a roller drum – they were constantly multiplying and did not require a glass surface to grow.
  • It was observed that the cells doubled every 20–24 hours unlike previous specimens that died out.
  • He realised their potential and went on to turn this into what would probably count among modern science’s greatest tools – a widely shared immortalised cell line.
  • It is said that in the 1960s, HeLa cells that were taken on space missions to study the effects of space travel on living cells and tissue, divided even more quickly in zero gravity.
  • HeLa cells were the first human cells to be successfully cloned in 1953 by Theodore Puck and Philip I. Marcusat the University of Colorado, Denver.

The ethics behind

  • There is no doubt she contributed unknowingly perhaps to several scientific discoveries, cures for maladies and vaccines, but Lacks herself did not survive, her permission was not sought to take her cells.
  • She might have been consigned to mortal transience, ironically despite her uniquely immortal cells and the benefit they conferred to the human race.
  • It was after a book was published that the timeline sets itself on a path of correction.
  • The National Institutes of Health , in the US reportedly set up a panel with Lacks family members to review requests to conduct further research on HeLa cells.
  • As Nature went on to record in an article after the announcement of compensation last week: The cells have been instrumental in at least three Nobel-prizewinning discoveries, but Lacks’s family was not compensated for those uses.


  • Thermo Fisher Scientific’s settlement with the Lacks family is a gesture from the users themselves. Thermo Fisher in Waltham, Massachusetts, sells products derived from the cells. While the details of the settlement are still not in the public domain, one thing is certain: It will give the Lacks family agency over how the cells are used.

Editorial 2: India’s Myanmar quandary, its paradoxical policy


  • India’s official rhetoric on commitment to democracy in Myanmar is in contrast with its policy framed through the lens of its security concerns in north-east India and relations with China.

India and Myanmar

  • As the land of Lord Buddha, India is a country of pilgrimage for the people of Myanmar.
  • British era: Both India and Myanmar were part of British India during colonial rule until 1935.
  • After independence, India and Myanmar established diplomatic relations and maintained close ties. India and Myanmar signed a Treaty of Friendship in 1951.
  • In 2014, Myanmar became part of India’s “Neighborhood First” policy and its “Act East” policy.

Issues  and challenges in India-Myanmar relations

  • Coup by Military Junta: A recent coup by the military junta in Myanmar made it difficult for India to balance its strategic and economic interests with its commitment to democratic values and human rights.
  • Weak trade relations: With a total bilateral trade of $2 billion, India’s economic engagement with Myanmar lags behind China. India’s withdrawal from Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership can further increase this trade gap.
  • Rohingya issue: The migration of Rohingyas in India is causing issues of internal security and exploitation of national resources of India.
  • Northeast insurgency: Myanmar-China border is the hotbed of local armed separatist groups operating in Myanmar soil and Indian groups, ranging from ULFA in Assam to the NSCN (IM) in Nagaland.
  • Internal security: It is a major concern for India. The Indo-Myanmar border is porous and lightly policed, which is exploited by terrorist outfits and insurgent groups from the North Eastern part of India eg. supply of trained cadres, and arms trafficking.
  • Free movement regime: The Free Movement Regime is being exploited by militants and cross-border criminals for the illegal transportation of weapons, contraband goods, and counterfeit Indian currency.
  • Trust deficit: It has widened in India-Myanmar because of delays in the implementation of various projects.
  • China has asserted itself through its soft power as well as through its trade and economic relations with Myanmar by taking up large infrastructure projects. Also, Myanmar is part of the Belt and Road Initiative initiated by China.

Indian policy towards Myanmar

  • At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the coup, India took a proactive approach by providing food and vaccine assistance.
  • However, the plight of the Myanmarese people seems to have faded from memory, with accusations of instigating violence in Manipur replacing it.
  • Communities along the border have already defied the Home Ministry by providing shelter to the refugees.
  • Concerns over trafficking and drug smuggling in Myanmar led to India suspending the Free Movement Regime in September 2022.
  • India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar raised the issue of infrastructure projects and stability in border areas with his Myanmar counterpart on the sidelines of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) meeting.
  • India has also supported the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ ‘Five-Point Consensus’.
  • However India’s official rhetoric on commitment to democracy in Myanmar is in contrast with its policy framed through the lens of its security concerns in north-east India and relations with China.

Way forward

  • India’s policy options in Myanmar are challenging, but not limited.
  • The relaxation of Ms. Suu Kyi’s prison sentence may provide an opportunity for India to engage with her and pro-democracy actors.
  • Additionally, the government and media must avoid blanket securitisation and profiling of incoming refugees, many of whom have ties of kinship in India.
  •  This approach is essential to prevent further violence and foster an environment of care and compassion.


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