After more than four months of discussions, the National Institutes of Health and the family of Henrietta Lacks have reached a mutual agreement that will serve to both advance medical research and protect Lacks’ descendants.
In 1951, Lacks died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Before her death, doctors removed some of her tumor cells. And something amazing happened. Her cells had a property not seen before: They could grow in a lab. Those cells, now called HeLa cell, were everlasting.
“We have agreed that NIH-supported researchers will deposit any DNA sequences derived from HeLa cells into NIH’s dbGAP database, and have established a process through which researchers can request controlled access to that data. Such requests will be reviewed by a working group consisting of physicians, scientists, a bioethicist and two members of the Lacks family,” said Francis Collins, MD, PhD, NIH director.
The HeLa cells have been the subject of more than 74,000 studies; they have served as the foundation for developing vaccines and provided insights into cell biology, in vitro fertilization and cancer.
END7 recently released the above video aimed at raising the profile of neglected tropical diseases. END7 is a Global Network campaign which raises money to increase access to NTD treatments and strives to end seven of the most common NTDs by 2020. NTDs affect millions each year, so it is extremely important to increase awareness of these diseases among the public and major political and philanthropic leaders.
In addition to the seven NTDs targeted by the campaign, it is critical that momentum continue to build around research and control efforts for other NTDs such as Chagas, dengue and leishmaniasis. Nature recently published results from a leishmaniasis study in Nepal, which indicated that leishmaniasis drugs are not effective in one-fifth of patients. Although the study doesn’t cite a particular reason for the drug failures, many suspect that the disease is becoming resistant to the most commonly used medication. With treatment failure rates up to an alarming 70% in areas of India and Brazil, drug resistant leishmaniasis is an increasing global concern. In addition, NTDs are on the rise here at home. Texas news outlets reported that 60-80% of animals in southern parts of the state are infected with Chagas, and experts warn that the overall risk of infection has increased. Florida officials have also confirmed that dengue has officially re-established itself in the state.
Despite these challenges, progress is being made in the fight against NTDs. Inviragen, a vaccine research organization based in Colorado, recently began Phase II clinical trials for its dengue vaccine candidate. The vaccine was well tolerated in the first phase of clinical trials and experts hope that Phase II will prove its efficacy and safety in young children.
On February 4, Aeras released the results of a clinical trial of one of their TB vaccine candidates. The trial was conducted in South Africa with nearly 3,000 infants and while the vaccine was safe and well-tolerated, ultimately it was not found to provide protection against TB. Although the results were not what researchers had hoped, the trial was the first of its kind and proved that a large-scale clinical trial to test a TB vaccine in infants can be successfully run in a country with a high TB burden like South Africa. Researchers also pointed out that there are twelve other TB vaccines in clinical development and the infrastructure built through this trial can be used to test these candidates in the future.
Instead of being disappointed with the results, the global health community must move forward in the fight against TB with renewed urgency. TB kills 1.4 million each year and over 12 million suffer from TB infection. Cases of drug-resistant TB are on the rise and the existing treatments are extremely complex and expensive, meaning that only 3% of drug-resistant patients receive proper treatment. The economic cost of TB is also enormous – in South Africa alone, TB control costs nearly $300 million each year. New drugs, diagnostics and vaccines are urgently needed to saves lives and money.
-Morgan McCloskey, global health intern
The U.N. has suspended vaccine work in Pakistan following the tragic killings of eight health workers during a three-day polio immunization campaign. Other health workers have been injured or threatened during efforts to deliver vaccines to children around the country.
Polio is a highly infectious disease and can cause irreversible paralysis, but there is a vaccine that can prevent the disease. Coordinated efforts from organizations like the World Health Organization, Rotary International and the Gates Foundation have helped reduce the threat of polio through vaccine distribution and stronger surveillance systems. Thanks to these highly successful immunization campaigns, the total number of polio cases per year has fallen by 99% since 1988. Although polio is nearly eradicated, it remains endemic in three countries, including Pakistan. Immunization in these areas is essential not only to protect the health of local individuals, but to prevent re-infection in nearby countries that are currently polio-free.
To read the full story, visit U.N. Halts Vaccine Work in Pakistan After 2 More Killings.
–Morgan McCloskey, global health intern
On World Polio Day, established by Rotary International, the global health community comes together to celebrate successes and renew commitments to eliminate polio once and for all. Polio is a highly infectious disease and can cause irreversible paralysis, but thanks to past research efforts, there is a polio vaccine that can prevent the disease. This year, World Polio Day is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). Launched in 2008 by the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United Nations Children’s Fund, GPEI is playing a critical role in the final push to immunize children around the world and eradicate this paralyzing disease. Rotary International, the first organization to become involved in the fight against polio, will have donated over $1.2 billion by 2013 and more than one million Rotary members have donated their time and personal resources to the effort. WHO oversees strategic planning for the initiative and develops standard guidelines for implementing vaccination programs. The CDC helps to train public health volunteers and CDC experts plan, implement and evaluate polio vaccine campaigns. The CDC is also responsible for polio surveillance, research and monthly reports on the progress toward global polio eradication.
The outstanding efforts of these public health agencies and workers have reduced the global incidence of polio from an estimated 350,000 cases in 1988 to 171 cases in four countries in 2012. These public health heroes are exactly the kind of individuals that Public Health Thank You Day was created to honor. Celebrated each year on the Monday of Thanksgiving, Public Health Thank You Day is an opportunity to recognize public health agencies, professionals, and volunteers like those from Rotary International who work to protect the health of Americans and others around the world. To learn more, please visit http://www.researchamerica.org/ph_thank_you or like our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/PHTD1.
-Morgan McCloskey, global health intern
On September 21st, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) announced that the Senate Malaria Working Group was turning into an official Senate congressional caucus focused on combating 17 neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in addition to malaria. With NTDs affecting over 1.4 billion people worldwide and documented cases of NTDs here in the U.S., this commitment to finding new solutions is good news. Past U.S. government involvement in the fight against NTDs has yielded promising results. The National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense have funded crucial basic research for NTDs. Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have implemented strong surveillance programs and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s NTD Program has made remarkable progress toward controlling the spread of several NTDs with existing treatments. However, these programs are constrained by the limits of existing tools and continued funding is needed to advance NTD prevention and control. Some of the most commonly used drugs are not effective or have toxic side effects, resulting in unnecessary complications or the need for repeat doses. Vaccines and adequate diagnostic tools are also lacking for many of these diseases. While continuing to treat these diseases on the ground, research to develop new tools is vital. More effective drugs and diagnostics will improve current treatment and control programs, while new vaccines could eliminate the threat of NTDs altogether. Investment into NTD research to develop these new prevention and treatment methods is essential for a successful global fight against NTDs. Members of Congress are recognizing the importance of combating NTDs. As advocates, researchers and implementers, we need to continue to make our voices heard for the health and prosperity of Americans and people worldwide.
-Morgan McCloskey, global health intern