HeLa Cells: Women are Inconvenient even at Cellular Level

Holy Hormones Journal:   The story about Henrietta Lacks, an African American tobacco farmer and mother of five could be out of a science fiction novel.  Although she died in 1951 from cervical cancer, tumor cells were taken from her body -without her knowledge and/or consent.  To scientist’s shock, the cells replicated faster than any other cells…. and are still replicating today.  The story is told by Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

The poor agrarian family never knew of this violation of consent until many years later.  It was then that they began demanding compensation since their mother’s cells were being used as the basis for many scientific and medical advances.  Although the family has reached an agreement with researchers – who will ‘credit’ the family who will know have a say in how the cells are used… they will not receive financial compensation – even though the medical and vaccine manufacturers have profited royally.

Another inconvenient woman.

Family of Henrietta Lacks reaches agreement with researchers

11 Aug 2013

Henrietta Laks

Family of Henrietta Lacks reaches agreement with researchers

by | 11 Aug 2013 |

The National Institutes of Health has reached an agreement with the family of the late Henrietta Lacks to allow researchers access to her whole genome data of her cells, commonly known as HeLa cells.

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who was 31 when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Cells were extracted from the biopsy of her tumor sample for use in research without her knowledge or consent. But her cancer cells became the first human cells cultured continuously for use in research. They have helped to make possible some of the most important medical advances of the past 60 years, including modern vaccines, cancer treatments, and IVF techniques. They are the most widely used human cell lines in existence.

Her family only learned that their mother’s cells had been scattered around the world in 1973. Their complaints were largely ignored for many years, but in 2010 her story became the subject of intense publicity and debate with the publication of a best-seller, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

At the time, there were no federal regulations or restrictions on the use of patients’ cells in research.

There have been many apologies and expressions of regret from the scientific community for exploiting a poor black family, although, at the time, there were no federal regulations or restrictions on the use of patients’ cells in research.

But not everyone has grasped the importance of consent. Just a few months ago, something worse happened: German researchers published the first sequence of the full HeLa genome. This compromised not only Henrietta Lacks’s genetic privacy but also that of her descendants. After they complained the researchers removed the sequence from public view.

The NIH’s agreement with her family allows them to have a say in the use of her cells and genomic data, but no financial compensation. All researchers who use or generate full genomic data from HeLa cells must now include in their publications an acknowledgement and expression of gratitude to the Lacks family for their contributions.

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.