Family Cuts Deal Over Famous Cancer Cells

Henrietta Lacks' DNA has been studied 74K times
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 7, 2013 7:00 PM CDT
Family Cuts Deal Over 62-Year-Old Cancer Cells
This 1940s photo made available by the family shows Henrietta Lacks.   (AP Photo/Lacks Family via The Henrietta Lacks Foundation)

After 62 years, scientists have struck a deal with the family of a woman whose cells are still at the heart of cancer research, the New York Times reports. The National Institutes of Health made the agreement with descendants of Henrietta Lacks, a poor, uneducated, black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Her cells have since been studied more than 74,000 times—and some Lacks descendents wanted a cut of the profits. Instead, two of them will sit on an NIH board that approves all studies of so-called "HeLa cells."

The agreement triggered the release of a new study that closely analyzes Lacks' DNA and may show how she got cancer. But the arrangement also highlights the tension between scientists, who need to study DNA, and people who want their DNA kept private. The Lacks deal "was pretty well-handled" but is just a "one-off solution," says an expert in biomedical ethics. "There's absolutely a need for a new policy." (More cancer stories.)

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