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US family reaches accord over use of cells taken from forebear

HeLa cells were taken from a patient without her consent; family have now been given a say over some research involving their use

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 August, 2013, 3:05am
 

Some 60 years ago, an American doctor removed cancer cells from a poor black patient named Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge or consent. Those cells eventually helped lead to a multitude of medical treatments and laid the groundwork for the multibillion-dollar biotech industry.

The Baltimore woman's saga was made famous by the 2010 best-seller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Now, for the first time, the Lacks family has been given a say over at least some research involving her cells.

Lacks' family members have never shared in any of the untold riches unlocked by the material, called HeLa cells, and they won't make any money under the agreement announced on Wednesday by the family and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

But they will have some control over scientists' access to the cells' DNA code. And the Lacks family will receive acknowledgement in the scientific papers that result.

The agreement came after the family raised privacy concerns about making Henrietta Lacks' genetic make-up public. Since DNA is inherited, information from her DNA could be used to make predictions about the disease risk and other traits of her modern-day descendants.

Under the agreement, two family members will sit on a six-member committee that will regulate access to the genetic code.

"The main issue was the privacy concern and what information in the future might be revealed," said David Lacks, grandson of Henrietta Lacks.

Jeri Lacks Whye, a granddaughter who lives in Baltimore, called the agreement historic.

"In the past, the Lacks family has been left in the dark" about research stemming from HeLa cells, she said. Now, "we are excited to be part of the important HeLa science to come".

Medical ethicists praised the NIH action. There was no legal obligation to give the family any control over access to the genetic data.

"They're doing the right thing," said Dr Ellen Wright Clayton of Vanderbilt University's Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Society. "Having people at the table makes a difference in what you do," she said, noting that some Native American groups have a similar arrangement with researchers.

Rebecca Skloot, author of the acclaimed 2010 book, sat in on the negotiations leading to the agreement, and she said family members never demanded money.

"This discussion wasn't about money for them," she said. Skloot noted that family members are earning income from speaking engagements and have received donations from a foundation the writer established.

Henrietta Lacks, who died in 1951 at age 31, was being treated for aggressive cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital when the cells were removed.

The cells were the first human cells that could be grown indefinitely in a laboratory. They became crucial for key developments in such areas as vaccines and cancer treatments.

HeLa cells are the most widely used human cell line in existence today. But Lacks died of her disease without knowing about them, and family members didn't learn of them until 25 years later.

They weren't told in the 1970s, when doctors did research on Lacks' children. And in the 1980s, family medical records were published without family consent, said Skloot.

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