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For the greater good? The ethical dilemma of Henrietta Lacks' genes

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Cells taken without consent have helped millions

henrietta lacks
henrietta lacks

In 1951, months before her death, doctors took a pair of tissue samples from Henrietta Lacks' cervix. Soon after, a researcher discovered that Lacks' cells lived on outside her body, which opened the door to a new world of research. Scientists have grown and used an estimated twenty tons of "HeLa" cells to test product safety, develop vaccines, and more recently, to map her genome. However, there's always been an ethical issue with HeLa cell use: the cells were originally harvested without knowledge or consent, and her family wasn't even made aware for over 20 years. Writing for The New York Times, Rebecca Skloot follows up her 2010 book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, examining the new moral issues that surround the publication of Lacks' genome. Although those responsible for the publication say otherwise, Skloot reveals that one scientist was able to produce a "report full of personal information about Henrietta Lacks and her family" within minutes. Lacks' family was not asked permission before the genome was published — shouldn't we have a say in what's done with our own genes?