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Scientific Ethics: Case Study: Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks book

Case Summary

"Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance.

Soon to be made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, this New York Times bestseller takes readers on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers filled with HeLa cells, from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia, to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. It’s a story inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we’re made of."

-From author Rebecca Skloot,

HeLa documentary

Henrietta Lacks articles & websites

Resources for teachers & students: Teacher's guide, timeline, Jeopardy game, and more.

NIH in Pact to Protect Privacy of Family, Maintain Research: August 2013 update regarding Henrietta's family working with the National Institutes of Health

Iowa Public Radio program (45 min.): interviews Iowa scientists who have used Henrietta's cells in research

The Immortal Life: website of author Rebecca Skloot with supplemental resources

Exploring Ethics: The Henrietta Lacks Series (videos from The Center for Ethics in Science and Technology & UCSD-TV)

The Henrietta Lacks Foundation: non-profit founded by Rebecca Skloot to support those in financial need who have, often unknowingly, contributed to scientific research

The Henrietta Lacks Series: A Community Exploration of Science, Ethics, & Diversity (articles from Voices of San Diego)