Henrietta Lacks, a young African American woman who mothered five children, has
made a remarkable impact on medicine and will never even know it. In 1951 at the age of only
31, Lacks died from an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Without her consent, cells from her
tumor were collected for research purposes, eventually being used in over 70,000 medical
studies. Her cells, commonly referred to as “HeLa cells” were groundbreaking due to the fact
that they were the very first infinitely reproducing line of human cells. Because of this, these
were the first cells that became easily shared and multiplied within a lab setting, contributing to
the creation of drugs to treat a multitude of diseases such as herpes, leukemia, and AIDS.
Although HeLa cells have led to many significant advancements, there must be an
acknowledgement of the unethical nature in which these cells were retrieved. Segregation played
a massive role in the legacy of Henrietta Lacks because after retrieving her cells without her
consent, scientists sought out Lacks’ children in order to use them as test subjects in the 1970s.
At this point in time, her family was completely unaware that Henrietta’s cells were being
utilized for research. Their rights were completely disregarded when their genome was being
unwillingly experimented on for the purpose of scientific advancement. It is very probable that if
this had been a white family, the proper precautions would have been taken so that Lacks and her
family’s rights were respected throughout this process.
With the publication of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot in 2010,
the general public became aware and outraged with Henrietta’s story. As a result, reforms were
made that would require moral standards to be upheld for all patients by requiring explicit
consent for tissue and cellular materials to be used in research. In 2013, Johns Hopkins, the
Lacks family, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) worked together to establish an
agreement requiring scientists to receive permission from a committee that includes Lacks’
family to use Lacks’ genome or cells in research funded by the NIH.
Overall, although many strides in medicine have been achieved through HeLa cells,
arguably the most significant aspect of Lacks’ legacy is inciting a need to reform how the
scientific community respects the dignity of its patients.
By: Jenna Savino’22, SNHS Member