Informed Consent And The Extraordinary Story of Baltimore's Henrietta Lacks | WYPR

Informed Consent And The Extraordinary Story of Baltimore's Henrietta Lacks

Apr 5, 2017

The book was a 2010 New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
Credit Penguin Random House

Today, another edition of Midday on Ethics. Later this month, HBO and Oprah Winfrey will bring the story of Henrietta Lacks to television. The film, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” based on the best-selling book of the same name by Rebecca Skloot, premiers on April 22.

You may already be familiar with the story of Henrietta Lacks, who lived in southeastern Baltimore County in the early 1950s. She had cancer, and in 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital did a routine biopsy. She died eight months later. But her cells live on, because without her consent, and without the knowledge of her family, cells taken during the biopsy were used, for decades, in medical research around the world.   In fact the HeLa cell line -- H-E for Henrietta and L-A for Lacks -- revolutionized medical research, and, by some accounts, has resulted in billions of dollars worth of medical breakthroughs. None of the proceeds, however, went to Ms. Lacks or to her descendants.

Could the same thing happen today? We’ll try to untangle the ethical questions in this conversation about Informed Consent. How much have standards changed in the 65 years since Henrietta Lacks was a cancer patient at Hopkins? What are today’s standards?

Dr. Jeffrey Kahn is the Director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. He stops by Midday regularly to talk about how ethicists help us frame the complex questions that surround stories like the extraordinary case of Henrietta Lacks.