The legacy of Henrietta Lacks popped up again today in a piece in the New York Times that should resonate among stem cell researchers and within the stem cell industry.
It even has a current hook involving California legislation to permit women to sell their eggs for the purposes of scientific research – a bill that is now on the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown.
The issues in the Lacks saga involve ownership of human cells, trafficking in them and informed consent, all of which surface in one form or another in the state legislation.
But first a refresher on Henrietta Lacks. She was an African-American woman who died in 1951 of cervical cancer at the age of 31. Shortly before her death, physicians removed some of her tumor cells, and, as recounted in today's NYTimes article by Carl Zimmer,
“They later discovered that the cells could thrive in a lab, a feat no human cells had achieved before.But Lacks never consented to her cells' being studied, a situation not uncommon at the time, nor did her family know about the situation until 1973. The complete story was chronicled in 2010 in a best-selling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," by Rebecca Skloot.
"Soon the cells — nicknamed HeLa cells — were being shipped from Baltimore around the world. In the 62 years since — twice as long as Ms. Lacks’s own brief life — her cells have been the subject of more than 74,000 studies, many of which have yielded profound insights into cell biology, vaccines, in vitro fertilization and cancer.”
Zimmer noted in today's article,
“For 62 years, (Lacks') family has been left out of the decision-making about that research. Now, over the past four months, the National Institutes of Health has come to an agreement with the Lacks family to grant them control over how Henrietta Lacks’s genome is used.”The particulars involving her genome are in Zimmer's story. But the article implicitly raises anew questions that make many scientists uncomfortable. Often they contend that the situation involving Lacks could not occur today because of higher ethical standards. Standards ARE higher today. But problems continue to arise in the scientific community, including the sale a few years ago of willed body parts at UCLA for $1.5 million to private medical companies.
Development of products based on human stem cells promises even greater rewards, with billion-dollar blockbuster therapies not out of the range of possibilities. Profit and the desire to record a stunning research triumph are powerful motivators. They can lead to short cuts and dubious practices, such as seen in the Korean stem cell scandals of 2006.
So we come to whether women who donate their eggs for stem cell research can give truly informed consent when they surrender all rights to whatever products may result from parts of their bodies, as is common on such consent agreements. Or for that matter, what about the men who give up adult cells for reprogramming to a pluripotent state? Can they really understand the likelihood of a billion dollar product being generated with the help of their contribution? On the other hand, can the donors also truly understand that they are probably more likely to be struck by lightning than have their body parts result in a medical blockbuster?
These considerations may seem insignificant to some in science. But to grasp their full implications, one only has to read a few of the nearly 200 reader comments today on Zimmer's article today. Here is a sample.
From Frank Spencer-Molloy in Connecticut:
“(T)the Lacks family was robbed. Scores of companies profited to the tune of tens of millions of dollars from products they made derived from Henrietta Lacks' cancerous cells. Maybe this will provide some impetus to a wider consideration of the rights patients are entitled to when their tissues are cloned and disseminated to other researchers and ultimately put to use in profit-making ventures.”From Robbie in New York City:
“At the very least, this family needs to be financially compensated for the anguish of their discovery and for the time and energy they've put into pursuing their rights. In my opinion, they also deserve a portion of any commercial gain that's been made using the HeLa cells. It is only through having to give away money that the powerful learn manners.”From Julia Himmel in New York City:
“It is absolutely true that scientists have had a blind spot when it came to the human element of the HeLa cells.”The pay-for-eggs legislation (AB926) now before Gov. Brown requires informed consent from those who provide eggs. Opponents of the measure, however, argue that truly informed consent from some women could be actually impossible because of economic pressures felt by the women. Writing in The Sacramento Bee last month, Diane Tober and Nancy Scheper-Hughes said,
“Allowing a market in eggs for research would reach beyond the current pool to target women who may be motivated by dire need. How many low-income women might consider selling their eggs, multiple times, to feed their children or pay the rent?”Even the fertility industry group sponsoring the legislation acknowledges that informed consent can be problematic. A 2012 news release from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine said,
“Prospective egg donors must assimilate a great deal of information in the informed consent process, yet it remains difficult to determine the extent of their actual understanding of egg donation and its potential risks.”The story of the treatment of Henrietta Lacks and her descendants is a poor commentary on science and medicine. Yet it resonates with the public, which is keenly sensitive to scientific and medical abuses, even in situations that did not appear to be abuses at the time.
Stem cell research already is burdened by its own particular moral and religious baggage. With commercialization of new, pluripotent stem cell therapies coming ever closer, the last thing the field needs is contemporary version of the Lacks affair. It would behoove researchers and the stem cell industry to walk with more than normal care as they manipulate products that are tied inextricably to visions of both motherhood and money.
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