This past week brought the announcement of an agreement between the living relatives of Henrietta Lacks and the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) regarding use of genetic information derived from HeLa cells, NY Times. Henrietta Lacks was a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland in 1951 where she was treated for and ultimately died from, cervical cancer. During her hospitalization, cells were retrieved from her tumor without her knowledge or permission. It is these cells, named HeLa cells, which proved to have an unprecedented ability to grow in laboratory cultures and were the source of many important scientific advances in the 20th centuryWall Street Journal . Neither she nor her family ever received any financial compensation for the vast contribution HeLa cells have made to science and society and restitution is not part of the story this week. Privacy of genetic information derived from Henrietta’s cells is the family’s concern, and rightly so. Of note, the story of Henrietta Lacks, her family, and HeLa cells is now widely known with the publication of Rebecca Skloot’s book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” in 2010 – a recommended read for anyone regardless of prior interest or knowledge in biomedical ethics www.rebeccaskloot.com.
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