Discussion: Can Henrietta Lacks Show Us the Way?

Who owns your cells? When they are in your body, it’s not much of a question. But, does the answer change if they have been taken for testing?

Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old mother of five when she died in 1951 of a particularly fast-moving form of cervical cancer. Doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins Hospital took samples of her cancer cells for study. Ms. Lack’s cell line was the first human cell line to grow in a lab environment and went on to help develop the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, in vitro fertilization, and much more.

Does the magnitude of these scientific achievements outweigh the fact that doctors did not obtain consent from Ms. Lacks?

In this Discussion, you will analyze the Henrietta Lacks case, including the use of research results without informed consent, by applying ethical and legal principles.

To prepare for this Discussion:

  • Review the Learning Resources related to the Henrietta Lacks case and the famous “HeLa” cell line.
By Day 4

Post a comprehensive response to the following:

  • In your opinion, who owns the results of health-related research (i.e., the cells, the cell lines)? Does it belong to the subject, the medical organization, the researcher, etc.? Support your rationale using ethical principles.
  • Should Henrietta Lacks’ descendants receive compensation for the research conducted with HeLa cells and the advancements that stemmed from that research? Support your rationale with legal principles.
  • If Ms. Lacks had given informed consent, would your opinion change? Explain.
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