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Family Reveals Reality Behind Use of Henrietta Lacks' Cells


More than 65 years after the passing of Henrietta Lacks, family members Victoria Baptiste and Alfred Carter Jr. spoke about the family's reaction to the revelation of the source and usage of the medically significant HeLa cells, extracted from the body of their deceased relative.  The two presented a lecture and discussion in the Chapel on Sept. 21 on the deception and inequity the family experienced over the decades. They also visited Natalie Nannas' Bioethics class for a discussion on Sept. 29.

Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 at age 31 of cervical cancer. Unbeknownst to her, as well as to her family, scientists all over the world had been using her cells for many years. Her cells, named “HeLa” cells, were sold generating millions of dollars in profits for various companies and leading to the development of the polio vaccine and aiding in cancer and AIDS research. Yet, the Lacks family reaped no direct benefits from the usage of the cells.

Many details behind the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family were revealed in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a best-selling book by Rebecca Skloot. A few years after the book’s release in 2010, an HBO movie with a title of the same name was created and nominated for an Emmy award.

Initially, many within Lack’s family were wary about a book being made on Henrietta. Henrietta’s daughter — Carter Jr.’s mother — “was very standoffish,” Carter, Jr. revealed when speaking about the first approach from Skloot to write the book. “She didn’t want our family to be exploited again, because it seemed like every time you turned around, people tried to take and to use.”

Such apprehension was also the result of the mistreatment  people of color experienced  in the era of Henrietta’s life and death. As Baptiste said, “I think a lot of [mistreatment] did come because she was an African-American woman, and at that time there weren’t a lot of hospitals that treated people that were of color and were of low socioeconomic means.”

However, both members of Lacks’ family admitted that the book’s success brought light to the issue of informed consent and bioethics, especially for African Americans. “As a whole, I think [the book] has done its job in bringing awareness to social injustice, to racism and to how much of an impact the HeLa cells have made on this world,” Carter Jr. said.

In addition, Baptiste and Carter Jr., clarified some of the distortion found in media’s portrayal of the Lacks family. “A misconception that may have come across in the book is that the family is a bunch of uneducated, destitute people,” Baptiste commented. “We have careers. We have college degrees.”

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In fact, Baptiste is currently a nurse, a career path that was solidified upon discovering the injustices her great grandmother suffered. Sharing her thoughts on Henrietta’s treatment, she remarked, “The fact is: the way that her cells were procured was not in a very honest and full disclosure type-of-way. She wasn’t given all of her options. She didn’t even know at the time of having those treatments what this would mean for her.”

Carter Jr., an ex-marine and the CEO and president of the Henrietta Lacks House of Healing, says his mission today is to provide support to men who have been released from prison, a system he had been in for over a decade. He is also in the process of writing a book about the Lacks family and the personal experiences of the family after Henrietta’s death.

The event was organized by the Days-Massolo Center.

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