Soon the cells — nicknamed HeLa cells — were being shipped from Baltimore around the world. In the 62 years since — twice as long as Lacks’s own brief life — her cells have been the subject of more than 74,000 studies, many of which have yielded profound insights into cell biology, vaccines, in vitro fertilization and cancer.
In the journal Nature on Wednesday, a team of scientists from the University of Washington described the HeLa genome, which they recently sequenced. The project is a tour-de-force of DNA analysis, befitting the best-studied human cells in the world.
But the research is exceptional for another reason. Henrietta Lacks, who was poor, black and uneducated, never consented to her cells’ being studied. For 62 years, her family has been left out of the decision-making about that research. Now, over the past four months, the National Institutes of Health has come to an agreement with the Lacks family to grant them control over how Henrietta Lacks’s genome is used.