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Henrietta Lacks: science must right a historical wrong

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  • Henrietta Lacks: science must right a historical wrong

    EDITORIAL01 September 2020
    Henrietta Lacks: science must right a historical wrong

    In Henrietta Lacks?s centennial year, researchers must do more to ensure that human cells cannot be taken without consent.
    That day in Erika Johnson?s high-school biology class, some 20 years ago, is seared into her memory. The teacher was leading the students through experiments involving cells from a widely used line known as HeLa. The cell line originated from tissue taken from a woman named Henrietta Lacks ? and Johnson?s mother was a Lacks. ?This is my great-grandmother I?m holding in my hand,? Johnson remembers feeling. ?It was a very surreal situation.?

    Last month marked 100 years since Lacks?s birth. She died in 1951, aged 31, of an aggressive cervical cancer. Months earlier, doctors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, had taken samples of her cancerous cells while diagnosing and treating the disease. They gave some of that tissue to a researcher without Lacks?s knowledge or consent.
    But the story of Henrietta Lacks also illustrates the racial inequities that are embedded in the US research and health-care systems. Lacks was a Black woman. The hospital where her cells were collected was one of only a few that provided medical care to Black people. None of the biotechnology or other companies that profited from her cells passed any money back to her family...

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