Henrietta Lacks

Grady (2010) offers the circumstances of Henrietta Lacks for discussion as it pertains to medical ethics. Henrietta Lacks was a young woman who succumbed to cervical cancer in the early 1950s at Johns Hopkins Hospital (Grady, 2010; Sorrell, 2010). Grady describes Henrietta Lacks and her family as “poor, with little education and no health insurance” (para. 10), yet she was cared for and her cancer was treated with radium, the standard treatment of the day. Despite treatment, Henrietta passed away. During the course of her treatment, however, a small sample of cancer cells were removed from her cervix for testing, and they continue to be tested to this day (Grady, 2010; Sorrell, 2010). Additionally, this line of cells, now known as the HeLa cells, has become commercialized, as they are bought and sold for millions on the biomedical research market (Grady, 2010).

Assuming no consent was given by Henrietta or her family, this raises a few questions. Did the physicians at Johns Hopkins have a right to these cancer cells? Did they have a right to transfer ownership to third parties? Does the estate of Henrietta Lacks require royalties be paid when others profit from what amounts to a donation to the public domain?

No person can own another person (or, a part thereof). This is consistent with the moral society of the United States. However, Henrietta Lacks presented herself to Johns Hopkins hospital with the express desire to rid herself of the cancer cells causing her illness. This alone could mean that the cells are refuse and able to be salvaged, and according to Fost (2010), this is agreed to be the law of the land. Fost describes the circumstances surrounding the HeLa cells as normal course of medical business, and I agree for the most part: “If tissue removed during an operation is about to be thrown out with the garbage and has no identifying information, it should be permissible to use it for research without the patient’s consent” (2010, para. 1). In this case, however, the researchers later approach the Lacks family to obtain DNA samples to discriminate between HeLa cell cultures and non-HeLa cell cultures. This mere fact offers evidence that the tissue is identifiable with Henrietta Lacks and her lineage, and I feel, as does Fost, that this is where the researchers erred, in asking for continued support of the cells by obtaining further comparative specimens for analysis yet not clarifying the misconceptions of the family. The researchers should not have requested further tissue (i.e. blood) donation without obtaining informed consent from the donors. Further, the cell line were given a name representative of Henrietta Lacks, HeLa, and she was named as the donor and widely known as such throughout the biomedical research community. Ergo, there were certainly identifying data linking Henrietta Lacks to the specimen.


Certainly under normal circumstances the cells should be made available for research purposes, but they should not be sold for profit, only for the costs of storage and maintenance. Any tissue freely used for medical science should be in the public domain. Further, if a specimen is found to have financial worth, I feel that the custodial researchers should set aside a royalty account allowing a small percentage of the proceeds to be returned to the donor’s estate. I also feel that if researchers have any special interest in further donation, then those donors should be offered remuneration for their donation which should be commensurate to the gains assumed to be made by their donation.

I find no issue with how the cancer cells were used initially, however, the sample should not have been attached in name to the donor. Though not required, it would have been nice if the researchers provided a royalty to the estate of Ms. Lacks, however, to thank her for her contribution to medicine and science.


Fost, N. (2010). A cell’s life: The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. Issues in Science and Technology, 26(4), 87+. Retrieved from http://ic.galegroup.com.ezp.waldenulibrary.org

Grady, G. (2010, February 1). Second opinion: A lasting gift to medicine that wasn’t really a gift. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com

Sorrell, J. M. (2010). First do no harm: Looking Back to the Future [Editorial]. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services, 48(9), 2-3. doi:10.3928/02793695-20100730-07