In 1951 Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman was being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore. Her cancer cells were extracted for research without her knowledge. Lacks died at the age of 31. But researchers were able to keep her cancer cells alive and they continued to replicate in the laboratory. The so-called HeLa cells are still used in research today and have been used to make important scientific advances.
Now more than a half century after the death of Henrietta Lacks, the National Institutes of Health has reached an agreement with her family. The agreement gives the family a say in the process of who gains access to the HeLa cells. It also ensures that those who use the cells will acknowledge Lacks’ contribution to their scientific research.
For more information on the African American woman who has contributed so much to scientific research, see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown, 2010).