It's taken 62 years, but researchers finally asked Henrietta Lacks's family for consent to use her cancer cells, which have been employed in over 76,000 studies since her death in 1951. Lacks, a poor, black mother of five, died of cervical cancer, but the so-called HeLa cells survived to become a staple of medical science. Journalist Rebecca Skloot called attention to the ethical issues surrounding Lacks' case in her 2010 bestsellerThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Now the Lacks family is finally seeing some justice.
Over the past four months, the National Institutes of Health has worked out an agreement with the family so that privacy can be maintained while researchers study the cells.
When Lacks died, researchers at Johns Hopkins removed the cells from her body without her family's knowledge or consent. Since then, the cells have led to major breakthroughs in various fields of medical research — from the development of the polio vaccine, to treatment of AIDS, to the discovery of how cervical cancer develops.