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Henrietta Lacks' family to sue pharmaceutical companies

9 August 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1107

The family of Henrietta Lacks is preparing a lawsuit against a number of pharmaceutical companies for profiting from cancerous cells taken without her or her family's consent.

Lacks was an African American woman from Baltimore, Maryland who died in 1951, aged 31, from cervical cancer. Cells from her tumour were used to create an immortal cell line, referred to as 'HeLa'. These cells were the first to be replicated ex vivo and aided numerous medical advances such as the polio vaccine and various cancer treatments. 

'Her legacy lives on in us. As we honour our Hennie's 101st birthday, we remain united towards educating the next generation on the impact of her HeLa cells, advancing equity to access the breakthroughs that her HeLa cells created, and seeking justice for Henrietta Lacks' said Lacks' grandson, Alfred Lacks Carter.

Her family claims that tumour cells were taken without her consent and have created billions of dollars of profit. The Lacks family has never received any portion of the profits from research conducted using HeLa cells. 

'This is the greatest example of corporate theft I've seen in my career and I've been pursuing pharmaceutical companies for 25 years' Christopher Seeger, a lawyer representing the Lacks family, said.

Seeger and civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump intend to launch the lawsuit in October, on the 70th anniversary of Lacks' death. They declined to specify who they plan to sue, but the Washington Post reported that they are considering up to 100 possible defendants including Johns Hopkins University, whose hospital treated Lacks and where the cells were taken. 

In response, Johns Hopkins University has long claimed that since they did not patent Lacks' cells, they did not receive any financial gain from, or rights to, the cells. Further, at the time of retrieval, medical legislation did not require that a hospital needs consent from the patient or their family in order to retrieve samples of their bodily tissue.

The 2020 centenary of Lacks' birth was marked with the start of a yearlong initiative 'HELA100', set up by the Lacks family to raise awareness and educate over 20,000 people including students, researchers and politicians. 

In 2013, an agreement was reached between the Lacks family and the US National Institute of Health giving the family a say over the use of HeLa cells (see BioNews 717). This followed the sequencing and publishing of the HeLa cell's genome by German researchers, which the Lacks family objected to over concerns that such information may be used to draw conclusions regarding the family's health. 

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