By Coshandra Dillard
In 1951, Virginia native Henrietta Lacks died from cervical cancer after a series of painful treatments at Johns Hopkins University. At this time, scientists were looking to keep human cells alive long enough to conduct research. Lacks’ cells were taken without her consent, and the cells remained alive in the lab. Several months after her death, her cells lived on and were multiplied by billions.
Her family had no clue that her cells were used for successful advances in medicine, including cancer drugs and the testing of polio vaccines. They were alerted in the 1970s, when they were contacted by researchers, who wanted to get family members tested.
Just this week, Lawrence Lacks said he’s asking Johns Hopkins University to consider compensating his family for the unauthorized use of “immortal” cells that came from his mother, Henrietta Lacks.
Lacks’ cells were the first human cells to be commercialized. Johns Hopkins University officials have said it never sold HeLa cells, although medical supply companies have. Drugs and other products using HeLa cells are widely used in the world. The Lacks family came to an agreement with the National Institutes of Health in 2013 to have some say in how Lacks’ genome was used, but compensation was not a part of the deal.
The Obama administration once considered requiring federally funded scientists to get permission from patients before using their cells, tissue or DNA, but that was dropped. Scientists argued that it was unnecessary and would hinder research. Scientists note that Lacks was not the only patients whose cells were unknowingly taken for research, although her case is the most famous and has the greatest impact throughout the world.
Lacks’ story gained attention after author Rebecca Skloot wrote “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” It is also being made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfery, to be released in April.
A CLOSER LOOK
You can learn more about Henrietta Lacks in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. Also follow Liberate Magazine’s book club, Liberated Bookworms on Facebook, as this will be the designated book of the month in April.