A compromise has been reached over one of the oldest cell lines used extensively in scientific research, over recognition and future use of the HeLa cell line. More than 60 years after the death of Henrietta Lacks due to cervical cancer, her family members will have a chance to say how scientists use the HeLa cell line taken from her without her knowledge. The National Institute of Health reached an agreement with the family of Lacks to officially recognize Henrietta as the donor and give researchers access to the genetic sequence of the cells, with restrictions that protect the privacy of her relatives. The deal was brokered by the director of NIH, Francis Collins after the Lacks family objected to a recent paper that carried a full genome analysis of the HeLa cell line. The family members objected to this since it was a threat to their privacy.
Close to 74,000 research projects have mentioned the use of these immortal cell lines in their research. These cells contributed to the development of the Polio Vaccine, the human telomerase and many other advances in biomedicine and molecular biology research. However, these cells themselves are riddled with many question marks of their own, since no two HeLa cell lines existing today have the same genome.
Under the new agreement, biomedical researchers will get controlled access of the HeLa genome data, which will be decided by a working group that also includes two family representatives from the lacks family. Every researcher who is given access to the data will have to abide by the terms of the agreement and will deposit their findings to the NIH database. In ever paper mentioning the use of these cell lines, the authors will have to remember to acknowledge and express their gratitude to the Lacks family for their contribution. Unfortunately the family members cannot claim any royalty over any findings from these cell lines.
Image Courtesy: THOMAS DEERINCK, NCMIR/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY