Recognizing The Long-Term Contributions Henrietta Lacks Made To Medical Research

Henrietta LacksFor more than half a century, Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells have been used for worldwide biomedical research. After her death at age 31 in 1951, HeLa cells have been a big part of the advancements made in medical research including the development of a polio vaccine, even though her genetic material was taken without her permission at the time. Nevertheless, the National Institute of Health recently finalized an agreement with the Lacks family, giving them recognition and the power to approve future research, which will be conducted involving Lacks’ genome. We asked our Zintro experts which ethical measures they think should be considered during any medical research.

Jonas Moses, an ophthalmic and emergency medicine clinician, agrees that it is critically important to protect the privacy and rights of every individual patient over his health information. “Private citizens, healthcare professionals, NGOs and the US Government itself, have banded together in developing standards and guidelines for protecting and assuring the anonymity of patient information, especially when such information is intended for use in research and publication of data,” notes Moses. “It is certainly concerning – and oddly aberrant – that there has not also been the same care afforded the biological sample materials derived from human sources, for use in research.” Throughout his career in cancer researcher and cell biology, Moses has done work with numerous human cell lines and describes how he thinks research should be conducted without jeopardizing participants’ privacy. “I and those scientists with whom I worked always took great care to protect the privacy of those patients and donors from whom our cell and tissue samples were derived. As far as we knew, all such samples were acquired with full knowledge and permission of the donors. It is appalling to me that this had not always been a standard practice and now has reached an ethical crisis in medical science. Will a change in policy – obtaining permissions, fully disclosing to patients and their families how the donated biological materials may be utilized and limiting access of donated materials to those uses that have been approved with the assent of the donors or legal guardians – have an impact on medical research,” he adds. “The answer must be a resounding yes! It will result in far more uniformity, vigilance and ethicality, all positive and essential ingredients in the furthering of medical science knowledge, in the practice of medicine and ultimately in the improvement of the human condition.”

By Idil Kan

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