NEW YORK — Some 60 years ago, a doctor in Baltimore removed cancer cells from a poor black patient named Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge or consent. Those cells eventually helped lead to a multitude of medical treatments and laid the groundwork for the multibillion-dollar biotech industry.It’s a saga made famous by the 2010 bestseller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”Now, for the first time, the Lacks family has been given a say over some research involving her cells....
Rebecca Skloot is the author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”LAST week, scientists sequenced the genome of cells taken without consent from a woman named Henrietta Lacks. She was a black tobacco farmer and mother of five, and though she died in 1951, her cells, code-named HeLa, live on. They were used to help develop our most important vaccines and cancer medications, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, cloning. Now they may finally help create laws to protect her family’s privacy — and yours.The family has been through a lot with HeLa: they didn’t learn of the cells until 20 years after Lacks’s death, when scientists began using her children in research without their knowledge. Later their medical records were released to the press and published without consent. Because I wrote a book about Henrietta Lacks and her family, my in-box exploded when news of the genome broke. People wanted to know: did scientists get the family’s permission to publish her genetic information? The answer is no.
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