Bioethics Blogs

Decades on from Henrietta Lacks, we’re still struggling to find an adequate consent model

The ‘immortal’ HeLa cells. Heiti Paves/Shutterstock

When 30-year-old Henrietta Lacks walked through the doors of a Baltimore hospital in 1951 to get a “knot in the stomach” checked, she couldn’t have known she was about to change the face of medical research.

After undergoing a biopsy on her “knot”, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer; it was so aggressive that she died only a few months later.

Henrietta Lacks.
Oregon State University/Flickr., CC BY-SA

But that was not the end of Lacks’s “life”. A small part of the cervical biopsy was retained and conveyed to the hospital’s tissue culture laboratory. There Dr George Gey, head of the laboratory, had been working for a few years on a system whereby human cells would continuously divide and grow in culture dishes. Gey had had no success thus far, but when he placed Lacks’s cells in culture, they behaved very differently.

Lacks’s cells survived, multiplied, grew robustly, and continued to do so for weeks and months afterwards – subsequently generating the first immortalised human cell line.

Gey never made a profit from these “HeLa” cells – named after Henrietta Lacks – but did distribute them to other scientists. Since then, the HeLa cells have been grown in countless laboratories across the globe and have now lived for twice as long outside Lacks’s body as they did inside it.

HeLa cells have revolutionised medical research, made countless contributions to medicine – from vaccine production to fertility treatment – and have been the foundation of a multi-billion dollar industry.

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.