NBC News – Over the past six decades, huge medical advances have sprung from the cells of Henrietta Lacks, a poor, African-American mother of five who died in 1951 of cervical cancer. But Lacks never agreed that the cells from a biopsy before her death taken could be used for research. For years, her own family had no idea that her cells were still alive in petri dishes in scientists’ labs. They eventually learned they had fueled a line called HeLa cells, which have generated billions of dollars, but they didn’t realize until this spring that her genome had been sequenced and made public for anyone to see.
On Tuesday, the National Institute of Health announced it was, at long last, making good with Lacks’ family. Under a new agreement, Lack’s genome data will be accessible only to those who apply for and are granted permission. And two representatives of the Lacks family will serve on the NIH group responsible for reviewing biomedical researchers’ applications for controlled access to HeLa cells. Additionally, any researcher who uses that data will be asked to include an acknowledgement to the Lacks family in their publications.
The new understanding between the NIH and the Lacks family does not include any financial compensation for the family. The Lacks family hasn’t, and won’t, see a dime of the profits that came from the findings generated by HeLa cells. But this is a moral and ethical victory for a family long excluded from any acknowledgment and involvement in genetic research their matriarch made possible.
It took more than 60 years, but ethics has finally caught up to a particularly fast-moving area of science: taking tissue samples for genetic research. Thanks to the efforts of a dogged journalist, some very thoughtful science leaders in Europe and the U.S., and an ordinary family willing to learn about a complex subject and then to do the right thing to help you and me and our descendants, a long-standing wrong has now been fixed.
The news of the day is that the analysis of the genetic makeup of HeLa cells, the most useful cells used in all of biomedical research, has been completed. But the real news here is that medicine and science have finally done right by the person from whom those cells were taken—Henrietta Lacks.
Lacks’ story was made famous in 2010 after publication of Rebecca Skloot’s award-winning book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which stayed on The New York Times best-seller list for two years.
The book chronicled how before Lacks died died, a research team at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore led by George Otto Gey took a sample of tissue from her cervix. He found he was able to grow them in dishes outside the human body. This was a major research breakthrough: having an immortal cell line gave researchers a crucial new tool against disease. Indeed, the first benefits from HeLa cells came in their use by Jonas Salk in developing the first vaccine against polio. Subsequently, scientists went on to use the cells in many experiments. More than 60,000 articles have appeared based on HeLa cell research including cancer and AIDS and even in developing vaccines for dogs, cats and other animals.
The downside of this story is that no one said anything to Lacks herself about taking her cells — nor did anyone get permission from her family. And as the years went by, and some people began to make money from the cells no one ever revealed this to Henrietta’s descendants, as is told in Skloot’s wonderful book. But that failure has now been fixed.
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