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Henrietta Lacks’ family gains some control over cells

In the last 60 years she has been making an impact on history.

Halifax County resident Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman whose legacy to medical science was the first line of “immortal” human cells, was born in Roanoke in 1920 and was living in Baltimore, Md., in 1951 when a tissue sample from a cervical tumor she had was removed, without her knowledge or consent, for medical research by a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Once cultured in the laboratory, her cells astonished scientists by their unique ability to survive and reproduce, eventually leading to major advances in medicine during the last 60 years through research made possible by the “HeLa” line.

Her family has worked diligently to preserve her rights and their rights and make sure she is recognized properly through the years.

On Wednesday, the National Institute of Health announced it had reached an understanding with the Lacks family that would allow biomedical researchers controlled access to the whole genome data of cells. In addition the family would be a part of a committee what will have a say in who gets access to the cells.

According to the release, the agreement ultimately came after researchers in Germany published scientific papers describing the cells. The Lacks family felt it was a privacy issue and could identify the family’s possible disease risk.

 Lacks was memorialized in 2011 when the Virginia Department of Historic Resources dedicated a highway marker in Clover, close to her childhood home.

Even then her children were being advocates for her.

“I’m so glad they’re honoring my mom, it’s been a long time coming, I just feel good inside,” said Lacks’ middle son, David “Sonny” Lacks, at the highway dedication service.

Lacks “HeLa” cells have made it possible for several advances in modern medicine including modern vaccines, cancer treatment and many others.

National Institute of Health Deputy Director for Science, Outreach and Policy, Kathy L. Hudson, PhD. describes the agreement with the family as a collaboration to develop new polices and ask more in depth questions regarding research participants.

“Besides their priceless contributions to biomedical research over the past 60 years, Mrs. Lacks and her family are now serving as a catalyst for policies that advance science, build trust and protect research participants,” said Hudson.