Family Gets Review on Immortal Cells That Led to 74,000 Studies

Descendants of Henrietta Lacks Cell Line Now Consulted on Genome
This undated image made available by the National Institutes of Health and National Center for Microscopy shows HeLa cells. Photographer: Tom Deerinck/National Institutes of Health/National Center for Microscopy via AP Photo

Descendants of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without consent and used in 74,000 medical studies since the 1950s, will have a say over how that genomic data will be used.

Any scientist receiving National Institutes of Health funds to study the cells’ genome must apply to a panel of scientists and two of Lacks’s descendants for access to the information, according to guidelines published in the journal Nature.

The agreement was shaped after a German group published a complete genome of these cells, nicknamed HeLa, without the family’s consent. It was available in a public research database for days, before the family’s outrage prompted researchers to remove the data. Doctors originally took the cancerous cells from Lacks in 1951 without her permission, and decades of work have taken place without consulting the family. Her case was the subject of a best-selling book three years ago.

“We are pro-science, we want to continue our legacy,” said David Lacks, Jr., Lacks’s grandson, in a conference call with reporters. ‘We just want to add an extra step to preserve our privacy.’’

The HeLa cells carry mutations that enabled them to form the aggressive cervical cancer Lacks died from later in 1951, which is why they grow prolifically in laboratories. They have contributed to numerous scientific advances, including testing the Jonas Salk polio vaccine, antidepressants and blood-pressure pills, and led to the injection techniques used for in-vitro therapy.

Genome Information

However, parts of the genome may reveal information about her family members. David Lacks, who lives in Baltimore, had a chance to look at the genome, and noted that not all the genomic information was being passed on.

“If I had this genome, I wouldn’t be going bald, but that is certainly not the case,” Lacks said. There’s a lot of information in public about his family, and though he shares only about 25 percent of the data in the genome, he’s concerned about his family’s privacy, he said.

More broadly, the HeLa genome raises questions about whether it’s possible to keep tissue donated in research private by stripping out the name and address from the donation, said Francis Collins, director of the NIH. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is preparing a new proposal for how to more effectively protect the safety and privacy of human research participants.

Agreement Terms

The terms of the agreement announced yesterday require investigators to apply to the NIH for access to the whole-genome sequences of two HeLa cell lines. Scientists must agree to abide by the terms of the data-use agreement, and acknowledge Henrietta Lacks and her family’s contribution in their work. Any new genomic information will be deposited into the protected database.

That includes a genome sequence of one of the HeLa cell lines published yesterday in Nature, which finds few mutations occurred over years of lab work. The study also suggests that the secret behind the quick-growing cells was the insertion of human papillomavirus near a known cancer-causing gene, causing the gene to be more active than it otherwise would have been.

The publication of that research, led by Jay Shendure of the University of Washington, was briefly delayed when another group from Germany published the HeLa sequence in whole in March, without consulting the family. While the paper was held, the Lacks family and the NIH discussed how best to respect their privacy while allowing science to go forward.

Lacks’s Story

Henrietta Lacks grew up in Virginia. After marrying at age 14, Lacks moved with her family to Turner Station, Maryland. She had five children before being diagnosed with cervical cancer. She received treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where the cells from her cancer were removed without her permission, and eventually developed into the immortal cell line. She died in October 1951, at age 31.

Her story became the subject of a book entitled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” in 2010 by Rebecca L. Skloot.

Lacks and her family are “among the greatest philanthropists of our time, when you consider how they’ve contributed to science and human health,” Collins said. Committees like the one formed around HeLa cells won’t be commonplace, since the identity of the family being widely known is relatively unique, and since no consent was granted for the initial cell line, he said.

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