The modern medical world owes a lot to HeLa cells: the polio vaccine, cancer treatments and in vitro fertilization, to name a few. It was the first immortal cell line, or group of tissue samples that could survive in a lab – and reproduce indefinitely. This characteristic made the cells ideal for research environments. HeLa cells became a catalyst for medical progress, from studying gene mapping to cancerous activity, and the cells remain in high demand today, even 60 years after the initial sample was collected.
Yet the source of those cells, Henrietta Lacks, never gave consent for her tissue samples to be used in research. And her family didn’t either.