Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 of cancer in a “colored” ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. But the cells doctors took from her body before she died are still alive today, in labs all over the world. They’ve been to space, were part of atomic bomb testing, and were critical in developing the polio vaccine and other scientific advances.
Companies made millions selling Lacks’ cells – known as HeLa cells – but her family had no idea until the early 1970s, when scientists decided they could learn more about cancer and other diseases by studying the Lacks family DNA – all without their consent. The family didn’t see a dime of those profits, and had very little idea of what had happened to Henrietta, who is buried in an unmarked grave in a dying town in Virginia.
Rebecca Skloot spent ten years tracking down the history of HeLa and the Lacks family. The New York Times called the result – “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”– “a thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty.” Others have heaped on similar praise.
Do patients own the rights to their tissues once they’re removed? Could what happened to Henrietta Lacks and her family happen again today?
Join us for a live online discussion of these provocative questions and others with Rebecca Skloot and bioethicist Karen Maschke, of the Hastings Center, on Thursday, Feb. 11, at 12pm ET. The event will be moderated by Reuters Health Executive Editor Ivan Oransky.