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Was it illegal to take the cells without her permission?

Not at that time. “What happened to Henrietta Lacks was commonly done,” says bioethicist Dr. Robert Klitzman of Columbia University in New York.

What are the rules now in the U.S.?

Specimens intended specifically for research can be collected only if the donor gives consent first.

If cells or tissues are instead removed for diagnosis and treatment, that is considered part of the patient’s general consent for treatment.

But there’s a twist. Once a specimen is no longer needed for treating the patient and would otherwise be discarded, scientists can use it for research. No further consent is needed, as along as information identifying the patient as the source is removed and the specimen can’t be traced back to the patient, says Johns Hopkins University bioethicist Jeffrey Kahn.

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