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Henrietta Lacks Family Speaking at AU

Henrietta Lacks Family with Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks Family with Rebecca Skloot.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells, taken without her knowledge in 1951, went on to become the first immortal human cells ever grown in the laboratory. Those cells, nicknamed HeLa, became one of the most important tools in modern medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more.  

Though Henrietta died in 1951, her cells—alive and growing to this day—are still the most widely used cell line in the world.  

The Lacks Family at American University

The Lacks family will appear at American University talk about Henrietta and her contribution to science. They will share their perspective on the collision between ethics, race, and the commercialization of human tissue, and how the experience changed them forever.  

The free event takes place on Wednesday, November 19, from 5:30-7:00 p.m. in the School of Communication, Forman Theater (McKinley 201). Before the talk begins, students will have an opportunity to meet the Lacks family at 3:30 p.m. in the Hughes Formal Lounge. For more information, visit the website


Henrietta Lacks’ Family: Their Story

Henrietta’s family didn't learn that the cells existed until the 1970s, when scientists wanted to do research on her children to learn more about the remarkable “immortality” of Henrietta’s cell line. Her children were then used in research without their consent. Though Henrietta’s cells have helped biotech companies make millions of dollars, her family never benefited financially. 

In August 2013, 62 years after Henrietta’s death, the Lacks Family reached an historic and unprecedented agreement with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). After a German lab posted the full HeLa genome online for anyone to see, Henrietta’s descendants came together with the NIH to consider options for protecting the family’s privacy without hindering medical and scientific advancement.  

HeLa Genome Data Use Agreement

The result is the groundbreaking HeLa Genome Data Use Agreement. Under this agreement, two members of the family join representatives from the medical, scientific, and bioethics communities on a new panel that reviews research proposals for use of the full HeLa genome sequence data and grants permission on a case-by-case basis.  

According to NIH Director Francis Collins, this marks the next chapter in the Lacks family’s long contribution to the scientific community. “Just like their matriarch, the Lacks family continues to have a significant impact on medical progress by providing access to an important scientific tool that researchers will use to study the cause and effect of many diseases with the goal of developing treatments,” he said.  

Despite what the Lacks family has endured, they say they are proud to honor the memory of Henrietta and her unparalleled contributions to science. Their message is positive, optimistic, and—above all—celebrates Henrietta’s life and legacy.

The event is sponsored by Sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences Dean's Office, Department of Anthropology, Department of Sociology, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Department of Biology, School of Teaching, Education, and Health, and the Public Health Association.