portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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What were the positive outcomes of studying HeLa cells?

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Henrietta Lacks' cells were taken and used without her knowledge or consent. In addition, among the many ethical problems with the way in which her cells were obtained, her privacy was not very well protected. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, noted:

When the cells were taken, they were given the code name HeLa, for the first two letters in Henrietta and Lacks. Today, anonymizing samples is a very important part of doing research on cells. But that wasn’t something doctors worried about much in the 1950s, so they weren’t terribly careful about her identity. When some members of the press got close to finding Henrietta’s family, the researcher who’d grown the cells made up a pseudonym—Helen Lane—to throw the media off track. Other pseudonyms, like Helen Larsen, eventually showed up, too. Her real name didn’t really leak out into the world until the 1970s.

Having been without her consent, however, the cells were subsequently used in very valuable research that benefited many millions of people. Among other things, the HeLa cells were critical in Jonas Salk's development of the polio vaccine, and also in the development of in-vitro fertilization, in AIDS research, and in many other applications.

The downside, of course, is that the cells were taken without knowledge or consent from a poor and uneducated African-American tobacco farmer, and used to create a multi-billion- dollar medical research industry. When the surviving members of the Lacks family found out about the cells twenty-five years after Henrietta's death, they were understandably upset, particularly considering that this had come about without their knowledge. Their perception was that scientists were profiting hugely off of their deceased wife or mother. This became an important lesson for researchers: every biological sample has a human being behind it.

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