In 2010, the publication of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot focused the public’s attention on a type of cell previously familiar only to scientists: HeLa cells. Skloot’s nonfiction work chronicles the discovery of the first human cell line to successfully grow outside the body for an extended period of time. These cells were isolated from a cervical cancer tumor removed from Henrietta Lacks in 1951. While all previous attempts to culture tissue from biopsies had failed, Henrietta’s cancer was so virulent the cells grew even in the primitive cell culture conditions of the 1950’s. The ability to grow human cells in a petri dish led to innumerable scientific discoveries spanning the testing of the polio vaccine up to the sequencing of the human genome. Today thousands of labs worldwide continue to use HeLa cells in their research. Henrietta died shortly after the biopsy was done. She never knew the cells taken from and then named for her (Henrietta Lacks) forever changed science and medicine.
The rules governing informed consent were less defined in the 1950s, and neither Henrietta nor her family gave permission for her tissues to be used in research. Her story still resonates today with the ethical issues surrounding tissue ownership and whether or not a patient should have control over how his tissues, once removed from the body, are treated.
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