NORFOLK -- Reproductive medicine in America changed forever onDecember 28, 1981 when Drs. Howard andGeorgeanna Jones announced the birth ofElizabeth Carrat Norfolk General Hospital.

Elizabeth was the nation's first, so-called 'test tube baby.' The birth was controversial at the time. Some even called in vitro fertilization, the process by which an egg is fertilized by sperm outside the body, as immoral.

When Dr. Georgeanna Jones died in 2005, the controversy had faded and the Joneses had become the 'grandparents' to thousands ofIVFbabies.

While Dr.Howard Jones is known as the co-founder of in vitro fertilization in America, he also played a major role in another historic, yet alsocontroversial, advance in medicine.

At Johns HopkinsHospital in Baltimore, Maryland in 1951, Dr. Jones examined married mother of five Henrietta Lacks, who had complaints of cervical pain. Suspecting cervical cancer,Dr. Jones removed tissue from the cervix that was used for a biopsy.

After 62 years, Dr. Jones says he still vividly remembers the examination. 'It did not look like any cancerI had ever seen, and at that timeI had seenmaybe a thousand cancers of the cervix,' said Jones.

The cancer diagnosiswas confirmed, and within the year, the disease claimed the life of the 31-year oldmother.

But the specimen removed during the biopsy revealed something that had never been observed in medicine.For reasons that were not fully understood at the time,the Lacks' cells continued to grow in a culture.

Over the years, the cell lineknown as HeLa, was grown and sold world-wide for bio-medical research.

HeLacells have been used for several medical advances, includingthe development of the poliovaccine, cloning and gene mapping.HeLa cells even made a trip to the moon to study how cells divide in zero gravity.

TheLacks story is the subject of journalist Rebecca Skloot's bestselling book,TheImmortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,which was published in 2010. Skloot describes the medical breakthroughs that can be attributed to HeLa, but also writes that the Lacks' family was unaware that Henrietta's cells were being sold, andthe family never received a dime from the medical profession.

In a recent interview, Dr. Jones deniedclaims that tissue samples were taken without the patient's permission, andsaid he was never involved in the duplication and sale of the HeLa cell line.

According to Skloot, a colleague of Jones wasresponsible for the initialduplication and distribution of the HeLa cell line.

The case hasraised ethical questions about the ownership of tissue once it is removed from the body. While the issue isunder debate, Jones says it's critical thatthe medical communityhaveaccesstospecimens that couldhold the key tocuring disease.

Dr. Jones is now 102 years old and says if his genome can provide clues to treating disease, then he is willing to share that information with the medical community.

Dr. Jones says the Lacks' case is one example of howinformation inside microscopic cells can save lives.

'It [HeLa] has become a very useful tool in solving many problems. The one that everybody quotes, is that it was instrumental in the development of the poliovaccine,' said Dr. Jones.

Decades after her death, the medical community now knows Henrietta Lacks' cancer was caused by the human papillomavirus and research with hercell line led to thedevelopment of the HPV vaccine.

From his office at the Jones Institute of Reproductive Medicine at The Eastern Virginia Medical School, Dr. Jones recommended that parents vaccinate their teen girls and boys to protect them from the virus that contributed to the death of Henrietta Lacks.

The baby Drs. Howard andGeorgeanna Jones announced in 1981 is now 32 years old and Elizabeth Carr Comeauis literally making headlines in a different way - asareporter for the Boston Globe.

Before giving birth three years ago, Comeau shared her IVF journey with readers. Comeau wrote, 'If my story helps couples or families learn about in-vitro fertilization, then the loss of privacy is worthwhile. People who have fertility issues deserve to know they can have healthy, normal babies.'

Dr. Jones now calls current IVF techniques inefficient and expensive because of the number of eggs that have to be fertilized to produce at least one healthy child.

While research is underway to streamline the process,Dr. Jones offered a glimpse into the possible future of reproductive medicine -somatic reproduction.

Highly controversial research is underway in which asexual reproduction takes place by the fission or budding of somatic cells. Dr Jones says this procedure is decadesaway.

'I don't expect to be around when this happens, but I really think it might happen within 25 years. I think the same argument will come up,[as the IVF controversy] but I think the only answer to that argument is to have it work, and say that you could have a normal child without the use of eggs and sperm,' Jones said.

As for covering the cost of today's IVF procedure,Dr. Jones says it wasa mistake to exclude IVF from the Affordable Care Act.'It should be part of health care coverage because it solves problems that cannot be solved in any other way,' said Dr. Jones.

Read or Share this story: