Thursday, August 08, 2013

Skloots, Collins and More on Henrietta Lacks' Cell Line Deal

More details about the unprecedented arrangement involving Henrietta Lacks' cell line emerged today in a wide range of publications, including a Nature journal piece that said it was not a precedent.

The article was co-authored by Francis Collins, head of the NIH, and Kathy Hudson, deputy director for science, outreach and policy at the NIH.
“It is important to note, however, that we are responding to an extraordinary situation here, not setting a precedent for research with previously stored, de-identified specimens. The approach we have developed through working with the Lacks family is unique because HeLa cells were taken and used without consent, and gave rise to the most widely used human cell line in the world, and because the family members are known by name to millions of people.”
The restrictions on use of the cell lines came about after a flap erupted about their recent use without the knowledge of her descendants. (The California Stem Cell Report carried a commentary on it yesterday.) Rebecca Skloots, author of the best-seller, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” wrote about the controversy in a March 23 op-ed piece in the New York Times. She said,

In the article, Skloots said,
“Imagine if someone secretly sent samples of your DNA to one of many companies that promise to tell you what your genes say about you. That report would list the good news (you’ll probably live to be 100) and the not-so-good news (you’ll most likely develop Alzheimer’s, bipolar disorder and maybe alcoholism). Now imagine they posted your genetic information online, with your name on it. Some people may not mind. But I assure you, many do: genetic information can be stigmatizing, and while it’s illegal for employers or health insurance providers to discriminate based on that information, this is not true for life insurance, disability coverage or long-term care.
“'That is private family information,” said Jeri Lacks-Whye, Lacks’s granddaughter. “It shouldn’t have been published without our consent.'”
Nature also carried a Q&A with Collins in which he said,
“This has wrapped in it science, scientific history, ethical concerns, the bringing together of people of very different cultures, a family with all the complications that families have.”
In the Wall Street Journal this morning, Ron Winslow described the arrangement with the NIH like this.
“Under the pact, two descendants of Ms. Lacks will serve on a six-member panel with scientists to review proposals from researchers seeking to sequence the DNA of cell lines derived from her tumor or to use DNA profiles of such cells in their research. That gives family members a highly unusual voice in who gets access to personal health information.
Terms call for controlled access to the genomic data and credit to the Lacks family in papers and scientific presentations based on the research done with the DNA data.”
In an interview in The Scientist, Skloots, who was involved in the Lacks-NIH negotiations, said the Lacks family asked for her participation.
“The only reason I was involved in this is because scientists did this without the family’s consent and then it got all of this press coverage, and no one asked the question, 'Did the family give consent?' So I sort of waded back in.”
She continued, 
“That OpEd that I wrote was the first time I’d ever publicly expressed an opinion, which was, 'Really?!? Are we going to continue to not ask the Lacks family questions?' I was kind of shocked in a sense that nobody thought to raise that issue.”

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