Bioethics Blogs

How was Henrietta Harmed?

The HeLa Legacy

I recently had the pleasure of meeting two of Henrietta Lacks’ descendants when I participated in a panel discussion with her granddaughter Kimberly Lacks and her great-granddaughter Veronica Spencer at Metropolitan Community College, Longview’s Spring Convocation on April 16th, 2015. The story of Henrietta Lacks was chronicled in the best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. This African-American woman, who died in 1951, is the source of the famous HeLa cells. These cells, obtained from a biopsy of Henrietta’s cancerous cervix, are unique; they are immortal in the sense that they have been growing in tissue culture since they were removed from her body in 1951 by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Henrietta and her HeLa cells have a complex legacy. Although the cells were taken without Henrietta’s truly informed consent, they have been used in medical research to make important scientific advances ranging from the development of the polio vaccine to new drugs to treat HIV and cancer. Despite this incredible contribution to medicine, her role as the source of these cells has been obscured until recently. (In medical school, I first learned of these remarkable cells as ‘Helen Lane’ cells.) Neither she nor her family or descendants received any monetary compensation, although pharmaceutical companies have profited enormously from drugs developed using her cells. And, in a striking irony, many of her descendants lacked health insurance to provide access to the very medical treatments that HeLa cells had enabled.

Despite these facts, I was once asked by a bioethicist the following question: How exactly was Henrietta Lacks harmed?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.