Letter to the Editor - Aug. 3

August 01, 2012

Family should be compensated for cells

To the editor:
In 1951, a woman became the source of the first immortal cell line (HeLa), which was obtained from biopsies performed during her treatment for cervical cancer, at Johns Hopkins University, as reported in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot.

Her physicians did not ask her consent before using her tissue for research.

However, the cell line became extremely lucrative for the university, providing a lot of revenue, estimated to be in hundred millions of dollars. Yet, the Lacks family never received any financial benefits from the HeLa cell line, while they lived in poverty, and could not even pay for their own medical care.

The reason I am writing this letter is because three doctors, all living in Boston, Mass., and associated with Children’s Hospital came to the following conclusion as reported in “Science,” Vol. 337, P 38, which I transmit in full.


“Although Skloot’s book is moving and compelling, we use caution in using the Lacks example as a model for thinking about compensating patients who provide tissue for research. Although one can point to the many injustices Lacks endured as a poor woman without access to needed medical care, the use of her residual clinical tissue, involving no additional risk or burden to her, does not demand any form of compensation. Furthermore, compensating such patients may have unintended consequences that could work to decrease the availability of tissue for research, and may paradoxically became a source of injustice. In this case, we therefore advise the investigators not to offer this family any payments for use of the residual clinical tissue they obtained.”

I can hardly believe they recommended no compensation. Did not these doctors realize that the tissue obtained from Henrietta was her property, which was obtained without her consent? Does not this act amount to stealing? No tissue, no cell line to make a profit. She has the right to her own cells, thus she certainly deserved royalty from the cell line, currently selling for as much as $10,000.

The idea that she was not at risk during this procedure is no excuse to deprive her from royalty that she deserves. Certainly her cancer must have given her a lot of pain. I hope that most people will agree with me that the family should be compensated.

S.V. Yumlu

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