The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Globe Life

August 12, 2013

Frankie Meyer: Strange case affects publication of gene lines

JOPLIN, Mo. — Because of the Internet, family history research can be done more quickly and easily than in the past. Where descendants once laboriously gathered details over many years, researchers can often find clues, documents, photographs and other details online at various sites.

Some websites go a step further. They are sponsored by companies that analyze cheek cells that are submitted by researchers of various family lines.

For a fee, the companies compare the DNA in the cheek cells to determine if the lines are related. Conclusions can be drawn because family lines that have genes that are most alike are more closely related than family lines that are less similar. The complete genomes are not analyzed.

What if a family's complete genome was analyzed and made accessible online to the public? Few families would be agreeable. The family of an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks is a good example.

In 1990, her descendants took their case to the California Supreme Court, which ruled that a person's cells do not become property that can be used for research without that person's approval.

The unusual situation started in 1951 when the 31-year-old mother of five entered Johns Hopkins Hospital. Henrietta was suffering from cervical cancer and had radiation treatment. During the treatment, tissue samples were taken from her tumor to be studied without her permission. At that time, hospitals could legally do that.

The laboratory personnel were amazed to learn that Henrietta's cells have the ability to be immortal. Although she died in 1951, billions of her cells have since been grown and used in medical research throughout the world.

Her cells have been instrumental in the research of diseases such as polio, Parkinson's disease, leukemia and AIDS, as well as gene mapping and sensitivity of cells to products. The name for her immortal line of cells is HeLa, which uses the initial letters in her name.

Her family became alarmed and voiced their concerns when they learned that the DNA code of her cells had been mapped and that the results, along with some family medical records, had been published. In 2013, the family reached an agreement with the National Institutes of Health. In the future, two members of the family will be on a committee that determines control of the cell line.

Suggestions or queries? Contact Frankie Meyer, 509 N. Center St., Plainfield, IN 46168 or email frankiemeyer@

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