The cells, called HeLa cells, have long been studied by researchers. Those researchers never had permission to take cells from Lacks' cancerous tumor, but the cells lived on in labs around the world nonetheless.
Lacks, who lived in Baltimore, walked into Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 complaining of abdominal pain. She died the same year.
Cells from a cancerous tumor in her body were taken for research, unbeknownst to her family. The cells had been studied, dissected and propagated for decades before her children knew they existed. The cells are credited with aiding in the development of vaccines, cancer treatment and in vitro fertilization.
The cells' story gained attention in "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," Rebecca Skloot's New York Times bestseller that sparked a conversation about the ethics of using her cells.
German researchers published the first full sequence of the HeLa genome earlier this year, which only escalated the debate. Releasing the data could unintentionally release personal information about the Lacks family.
On Wednesday, the NIH announced that the full genome of HeLa cells will be mapped. A panel of the NIH and members of Lacks' family will allow controlled access to researchers after reviewing their proposals.
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