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Bioethical standards: The legacy of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks’s contribution to the scientific community is remarkable. It was also non-consensual and largely unknown until recently. 

In 1951, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer. During that time, physicians violated protocol by harvesting Lacks’s cells without her permission, a common practice at the time. Informed consent was the last thing on any of their minds. 

When Henrietta Lacks was admitted for diagnosis and treatment of her cancer, she was not informed in any way that her cells were going to be collected and used for ongoing research.

Other patient cancer cells quickly died while being studied: however, Lacks’s cells doubled every 20–24 hours. Her cells, dubbed “HeLa” cells after her first and last name, became the first immortal human cell line. 

HeLa cells have been used, to this day, for novel scientific and medical discoveries. From studying the human genome to testing the effects of drugs and toxins on human cells to creating Polio vaccines, these cells have been instrumental in learning more about cancer and viruses without having to experiment directly on humans. 

The obvious benefit from the discovery of HeLa cells is shadowed by the injustices she and her family experienced. HeLa cells have been sold for enormous profits since their discovery, while Lacks and her family could not afford effective healthcare. Her family was not even aware of the fact that HeLa cells existed, let alone their significant impact, until 1971. They did not have a say in how researchers used these cells. 

Lacks’s story is a prime example of the ethical tradeoffs that the scientific community faces when pursuing new advancements. The ethics of informed consent is perhaps one of the most important aspects to consider when conducting human research. 


~ Saathvika Diviti `25

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