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“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
― Carl Sagan
The family of the late Henrietta Lacks finally got the chance to weigh in on how scientists use cells taken from her — without consent — more than 60 years ago.
The National Institutes of Health and the Lacks family have agreed to give scientists access to the genetic sequence of the cells, with some restrictions to safeguard her relatives’ privacy. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins described the agreement covering these so-called HeLa cellsWednesday, and how it came to be in the journal Nature.
The situation, he says, shines a bright light on a rising ethical issue in biomedicine: How do researchers protect people’s privacy when they donate samples for genomic sequencing and scientific experiments?
The guidelines governing this issue were drawn up in the 1970s. And they clearly lag behind the technology. The ability to decode a whole genome quickly and cheaply makes it virtually impossible to hide a donor’s identity when they give specimens for research.
"Science moves forward, advances happen in biology based upon resources that have been donated," Collins tells NPR. "Policy reforms have to be undertaken in order to keep up with the science."
The same was true back in 1951 when Henrietta Lacks unwittingly made available to scientists one of the most useful tools in research: cells that replicate and grew indefinitely in the lab. These cells are among the most widely used in biomedical research worldwide.
At age 31, the African-American mother of five had an unusually aggressive form of cervical cancer. The doctors treating her passed a piece of her tumor along to researchers down the hall, without permission from her or her family.
Photo of Henrietta Lacks and her husband David courtesy of the Lacks family.
If you have never heard of Henrietta Lacks, you can also check wikipedia. She was the unwitting source of cells cultured to create the first known human immortal cell line for medical research.
Before starlings roost, their maneuvers create mesmerizing aerial displays. To achieve synchronicity, each bird shadows seven of its nearest neighbors. EARTHFLIGHT: Europe on NATURE on PBS (check local listings) or watch the full episode of EARTHFLIGHT online.
Breastfeeding a baby may seem ordinary, but in the animal kingdom it’s exceptional. Humans, along with other mammals, are the only creatures capable of producing milk, which flows from mammary glands to hungry mouths through a network of ducts. How these tubes (seen here in cross-section) form is complex, and relies on the internal structure of component cells becoming asymmetrical, or polarised. While the process is poorly understood, scientists have now implicated two proteins, which when working together, mediate polarisation and thus allow a healthy passageway to appear. Without either one, the tubes fail to form (second and eighth images looking top left to bottom right). Investigating polarisation, however, is more than just knowing where a baby’s breakfast comes from. Malfunctioning of the process is linked to diseases such as cancer, and so understanding the problem could eventually lead to new therapies.
Written by Jan Piotrowski
Nasreen Akhtar & Charles Streuli
Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature Cell Biology Copyright 2013