Midday on Ethics: Informed Consent and the Case of Baltimore's Henrietta Lacks | WYPR

Midday on Ethics: Informed Consent and the Case of Baltimore's Henrietta Lacks

Apr 9, 2018

(This story originally aired on April 5, 2017) 

Today, an archive edition of Midday on Ethics.  A year ago, HBO and Oprah Winfrey brought the story of Henrietta Lacks to television. The film, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” based on the book of the same name by Rebecca Skloot, is still available for streaming on the HBO website.

You may already be somewhat familiar with the story of Henrietta Lacks, who lived in southeastern Baltimore County in the early 1950s, in Turner Station.   She had cancer, and in 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital did a biopsy to diagnose her disease and to determine her course of treatment.  She died 8 months later.  But her cells -- a rare "immortal" line that could be reproduced endlessly -- have lived on.  She may have consented to the biopsy.  But without her consent, and without the knowledge of her family, cells taken during that procedure 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, ever went to Ms. Lacks or to her descendants.

So, could the same thing happen today?  What follows is a conversation about Informed Consent. How much have standards changed in the 65 years since Henrietta Lacks was a cancer patient at Hopkins? And what are today’s standards for Informed Consent?

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

Because this is an archive edition of Midday, we’re not able to take any new calls or emails.   We first aired this show in April of last year, just before the Henrietta Lacks film debuted on HBO.