Week of Feb. 22

Celebrating Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks
Written by Bobbie Ann Henderson, Senior Attorney

I am raising my nephews after the death of their parents. While researching their mom's mesothelioma and potential treatment, we learned “HeLa cells” were involved in most cancer research. "HeLa" is taken from the first and last name of Henrietta Lacks, the African American woman from whom the cancer cells were taken in 1951. Her cells were cloned and distributed to researchers across the world for decades.

We were intrigued by the story: Lacks’ cells stayed alive longer than others, allowing longer studies. They were called “immortal” and easily cloned. Research on Lack’s cells resulted in development of polio and HPV vaccines, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping and understanding parvo virus in humans and pets. The cells were sent on space missions and used in vaccine research for COVID-19. We personally wanted the research identifying long-term effects of cancer radiation and effectiveness of other cancer treatments.

Our pride in Lacks’ selfless donation of her cells turned to indignation when we learned she did NOT voluntarily donate or consent to their use. Her personal information, medical history, cell genome and medical records were freely disclosed. Lacks was never told her cells and personal information were shared and never compensated for their use. This sparked discussion in our family about poverty, medical treatment, trust and privacy. We also talked about whether sacrifices for the “greater good” were always valid or if some groups or races were asked/expected to sacrifice more often/readily. As we had a family member treating for cancer, these discussions were sometimes emotional.

There is a recent movement to compensate Lacks’ family. The Henrietta Lacks Foundation was created to provide financial assistance to people who have undergone experiments without their consent. The book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, was turned into an HBO movie to teach others about her legacy.

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