Lessons from HeLa Cells: The Ethics and Policy of Biospecimens

Laura M Beskow
Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics 2016 August 31, 17: 395-417
Human biospecimens have played a crucial role in scientific and medical advances. Although the ethical and policy issues associated with biospecimen research have long been the subject of scholarly debate, the story of Henrietta Lacks, her family, and the creation of HeLa cells captured the attention of a much broader audience. The story has been a catalyst for policy change, including major regulatory changes proposed in the United States surrounding informed consent. These proposals are premised in part on public opinion data, necessitating a closer look at what such data tell us. The development of biospecimen policy should be informed by many considerations-one of which is public input, robustly gathered, on acceptable approaches that optimize shared interests, including access for all to the benefits of research. There is a need for consent approaches that are guided by realistic aspirations and a balanced view of autonomy within an expanded ethical framework.

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