February 1, 2010- In a new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown Books), Rebecca Skloot tells of the origin of the first “immortal” human cell culture line. So-called HeLa cells –taken from a cervical cancer patient, Mrs. Henrietta Lacks, at Johns Hopkins 60 years ago -- were grown in a laboratory at Johns Hopkins and distributed widely and freely for scientific research purposes thereafter. The novel cells were – and are -- a biomedical marvel, multiplying and surviving in an unprecedented way. HeLa cells have enabled scientists worldwide to study cancer and other diseases, to observe and test human cells as never before, and to do so in a standardized way across thousands of laboratories.
The following statement addresses some question raised by the book and its promotional materials about the lack of informed consent by Mrs. Lacks or her family to permit the use of her cells for scientific research; and about some financial issues related to their use.
Johns Hopkins Medicine sincerely acknowledges the contribution to advances in biomedical research made possible by Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells. It’s important to note that at the time the cells were taken from Mrs. Lacks’ tissue, the practice of obtaining informed consent from cell or tissue donors was essentially unknown among academic medical centers. Sixty years ago, there was no established practice of seeking permission to take tissue for scientific research purposes. The laboratory that received Mrs. Lacks’s cells had arranged many years earlier to obtain such cells from any patient diagnosed with cervical cancer as a way to learn more about a serious disease that took the lives of so many. Johns Hopkins never patented HeLa cells, nor did it sell them commercially or benefit in a direct financial way. Today, Johns Hopkins and other research-based medical centers consistently obtain consent from those asked to donate tissue or cells for scientific research.