Henrietta Lacks: Family Consents to Her Medical Gift

Sixty-two years after doctors removed tumor cells from her body after her death and began to use them for research, her family is now being brought into the decision-making process.

Posted:
 
dna8813575lh
Generic image (Thinkstock)

Sixty-two years after Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer and doctors removed tumor cells from her body, her family is now being brought into the decision-making process concerning research with those cells. The study of her cells has netted profound medical and biological discoveries, the New York Times reports.

Henrietta Lacks was only 31 when she died of cervical cancer in 1951 in a Baltimore hospital. Not long before her death, doctors removed some of her tumor cells. They later discovered that the cells could thrive in a lab, a feat no human cells had achieved before.

Soon the cells, called HeLa cells, were being shipped from Baltimore around the world. In the 62 years since — twice as long as Ms. Lacks's own life -- her cells have been the subject of more than 74,000 studies, many of which have yielded profound insights into cell biology, vaccines, in vitro fertilization and cancer.

But Henrietta Lacks, who was poor, black and uneducated, never consented to her cells' being studied. For 62 years, her family has been left out of the decision-making about that research. Now, over the past four months, the National Institutes of Health has come to an agreement with the Lacks family to grant them some control over how Henrietta Lacks's genome is used.

"In 20 years at N.I.H., I can't remember something like this," Dr. Francis S. Collins, the institute's director, said in an interview.

The agreement, which does not provide the family with the right to potential earnings from future research on Ms. Lacks's genome, was prompted by two projects to sequence the genome of HeLa cells, the second of which was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Read more at the New York Times.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.