In this lesson, you will investigate the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Doctors sent some of her cancer tissue to medical researchers who had been unsuccessful at growing cells in the laboratory environment, but that changed with the HeLa cell cultures.


Begin this lesson by reading Henrietta Lacks' ‘Immortal’ Cells, which is an interview with the author that summarizes the book and the story behind HeLa cells. Think about your answers to these questions as you read this interview. These questions can also be found on the HeLa student sheet:

  • What differentiates HeLa cells from other human cells?
  • Henrietta’s doctor removed her cancer tissue during an autopsy and didn’t tell her family. Do you think he should have asked her family for permission and why?
  • How would you define informed consent?
  • If you go to the dermatologist and he or she removes a mole, what do you think is done with that tissue sample?
  • How would you define bioethics?

Now you should go to and read Taking the Least of You, which discusses other legal cases where patients fought for control over their cell tissue. As you read, think about your answers to these questions, which you will discuss in class (you can record your answers on the HeLa student sheet):

  • Who was Ted Slavin?
  • Why is he worth keeping track of?
  • According to the RAND report, how many tissue samples were on file in 1999?
  • What are these samples used for?
  • Who owns these tissue samples? Do individuals own their own tissue samples?
  • Who was John Moore? What was his significance?
  • According to Lori Andrews, what was the effect of the decision? Who seems to have the commercial value of the tissues?
  • What do you think about the question of property rights over an individual’s tissues? How would this affect medical research? Would it be too expensive, too unwieldy to manage?
  • What are the main issues involved in the Catalona case?
  • Why do you think this case has come about in the first place?

Knowledge Check

After you finish reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, your teacher will ask you to write an essay about one of these topics:

  • Read Ethics in Research and write an essay about the voluntary and involuntary participation in medical research. Define the key concepts found at the bottom of the Key Concepts student sheet and include them in your essay.
  • Watch the video Informed Consent and Medical Research. Different cultures hold different beliefs about health, religion, and death. In some cultures, if a person is terminally ill, the family members may tell the doctors they do not want that person to know they are dying for fear the person will give up. This is called a right not to know. If you had a terminal illness, would you want to know? Why or why not? Write an essay about your feelings on this issue. Before you begin writing, define the key concepts found at the bottom of the Key Concepts student sheet and include them in your essay.

    To get started, let’s say you learn you have cancer. Consider what you want to do beyond getting well. What might you tell your doctor about finding a cure? What if your sister or brother were at risk for the disease? Would you want to know if your future children would be at risk? What could you do now to help them hopefully avoid your diagnosis?

This esheet is a part of the The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks lesson.

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