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21st October 2021

Justice at last for Henrietta Lacks?

A new lawsuit from the family of Henrietta Lacks represents a new chapter in her tale of race, money and consent.
Justice at last for Henrietta Lacks?
Flickr @Oregon State University

In October last year, the Mancunion covered the story of Henrietta Lacks. She was a black woman whose cancerous cells were taken without her consent and sold to be used in research laboratories all around the world.

These cells, known as HeLa cells, have generated millions of dollars in revenue for Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., a biotechnology company. Up until now, Lacks’ family has not received a penny, but a lawsuit filed on the 4th October – the 101st anniversary of her death – may change that.

Who was Henrietta Lacks?

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was receiving care for cervical cancer at John Hopkins Hospital, Maryland. Doctors took a sample of her biopsied tumour, without her knowledge or consent, and sent it to laboratories all over the world. This was within legal boundaries at the time, but nonetheless presents clear ethical problems.

In addition, Lacks’ cells were unique, and far more useful than any harvested cells had been previously. Due to a genetic mutation, they were able to divide at an unprecedented rate, leading to an unending line of identical cells that are still used in research today.

Her cells have been used to produce polio and HPV vaccines, treat Ebola and have been sent to outer space. Most recently, they were used in the development of the COVID-19 vaccines. The widespread use of the cells have made them the basis of countless patents and inventions, facilitating recognition and profits for many scientists and companies.

New lawsuit announced

Lacks’ family have now announced that they are suing Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., a biotechnology company specialising in life science research and patient diagnostics. It claims to make $35 billion annually.

The lawsuit asks them to “disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercialising the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks.”

The family’s lawyers state that the cells were stolen from her body and the money they generated was taken from her family, many of whom experienced severe poverty. Ironically, many suffered for years from chronic illnesses without health insurance, whilst the cells taken from their mother were constantly improving medical practices.

During a news conference, Ben Crump, a prominent civil-rights attorney working on the lawsuit asked:

“Why is it they have intellectual rights to her cells and can benefit billions of dollars when her family, her flesh and blood, her Black children, get nothing?”

Alongside a right to the profits, the family are also demanding that Thermo Fisher Scientific halt their usage of HeLa cells unless the family give their consent.

There were also hints of further lawsuits to come. Christopher Seeger, a corporate litigator working as another attorney for the family said that Thermo Fisher Scientific “shouldn’t feel too alone because they’re going to have a lot of company soon.”

It is unknown what companies will be involved, as so many corporations have profited from use of the cells over the years. John Hopkins itself denies ever making money from the cells, but accepts ethical responsibility.  The lawsuit claims that Lacks was one of a number of black women receiving cervical cancer treatment at John Hopkins in the 1950s who had their cells unethically harvested by white doctors.

True justice for Henrietta Lacks is arguable unobtainable. However, the launch of this lawsuit provides a sense of hope that one day reparations will be made for this horrific historical iniquity.

Emma Hattersley

Emma Hattersley

Editor: Science and Technology Section

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