In 1951, an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. She was treated at Johns Hopkins University, where a doctor named George Gey snipped cells from her cervix without telling her. Gey discovered that Lacks’ cells could not only be kept alive, but would also grow indefinitely.
For the past 60 years Lacks’ cells have been cultured and used in experiments ranging from determining the long-term effects of radiation to testing the live polio vaccine. Her cells were commercialized and have generated millions of dollars in profit for the medical researchers who patented her tissue.
Lacks’ family, however, didn’t know the cell cultures existed until more than 20 years after her death.
In 2010 we spoke to Medical writer Rebecca Skloot who examines the legacy of Lacks’ contribution to science — and effect that has had on her family — in her bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,
Now, 62 years later the Lacks family has given consent to this controversial medical contribution. Researchers who wish to use “HeLa” cells now have to submit a request and proposal that will be reviewed by the Lacks family. This new agreement is in the interest of respecting the family’s privacy, though, they still will not profit financially from any medical study.
This is a remarkable story, both medically and ethically, about the rights we have to our bodies, even beyond the grave.
image via NPR