Acknowledging Henrietta Lacks And Her Contribution To Genetic Research

Henriette LacksFor more than half a century, Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells have been used for worldwide biomedical research. After her death at age 31 in 1951, HeLa cells have made significant contributions to medical research including the development of a polio vaccine, even though her genetic material was taken without her consent at the time. Nevertheless, the National Institute of Health recently finalized an agreement with the Lacks family, giving them recognition and the power to approve future research, which will be conducted involving Lacks’ genome. Zintro experts share their opinion on ethical measures for medical research.

Jim Swick, an expert in translational research and clinical affairs, believes that the story of Henrietta Lacks has been widely acknowledged among the molecular biology and cancer research communities. “Born out of the tragedy of her untimely death, tens of thousands of people have benefitted and will continue to do so. The issue at hand is how these cells were initially acquired. The physicians and researchers who took part initially had only the best of intentions. It is necessary to understand that this all happened in 1951 when the term ‘genome’ was unheard of,” Swick explains. “The advances, which have taken place with respect to our understanding of genetics has grown and with it the ability to predict one’s susceptibility to disease.” From Swick’s perspective, it was still unethical to take Henrietta Lacks’ tissue without her permission. “I believe that when her genetic information was published in 2010, it put the privacy of this well known family at risk. The fact that the authors removed the information immediately speaks volumes to their good behavior,” he adds. “I think that it will be extremely important that anonymity of those, who donate tissue be recognized when managing these types of data and guidelines established as well as enforced going forward.”

According to PLConsulting, an expert in clinical diagnostic development, the goal of this agreement reached between the NIH and the Lacks family finally was to compensate for the long-time negligence of the donor’s privacy rights. “It would also make sense that the NIH becomes the repository of a collection of well-characterized HeLa cell lines, given that hundreds of laboratories have cultivated the cells under various conditions for over 60 years, thus generating a number of cell lines with significant genomic differences. These differences explain the difficulty to reproduce results of experiments using ‘HeLa’ cell cultures obtained in different laboratories,” he notes. “Ultimately, there is a lot to benefit from having the cells well characterized; obtaining ‘fresh’ cultures from a single source would allow labs to generate data that can be confirmed and built upon by other laboratories. Let’s hope that this is the first of a trend, where privacy rights are acknowledged and a disciplined approach to using well-characterized cell lines is adopted.”

By Idil Kan

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