The US National Institutes of Health has announced that it has reached an understanding with the family of the late Henrietta Lacks to allow biomedical researchers controlled access to the whole genome data of cells derived from her tumor, commonly known as HeLa cells.
These cells have already been used extensively in scientific research and have helped make possible some of the most important medical advances of the past 60 years. These include the development of modern vaccines, cancer treatments, in vitro fertilization techniques, and many others. HeLa cells are the most widely used human cell lines in existence today.
In an interview published in Nature, NIH Director Francis Collins discusses how he met with the family of Ms Lacks and negotiated a deal to release sequence data for the HeLa cell line while respecting the wishes of the family. Access to the whole genome data of these cells will be a valuable reference tool for researchers using HeLa cells in their research.
The full story of how Ms Lacks’ cells came to be so widely used is told in a best-selling book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, by science writer Rebecca Skloot.