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Why family of US woman, whose cells spurred countless breakthroughs, are suing biotech firm

Henrietta Lacks’ cells were extracted by doctors from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, US, without her consent. Her family has now sued a biotech firm for selling her cells for profit.

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New Delhi: The family of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman from Virginia in the US who died of cervical cancer in 1951, has sued a biotech company for selling her cells, which were extracted by doctors from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore without her consent.

Lacks’s cells were taken from the tumour on her cervix without informing her when she went to the hospital for treatment, after she had faced excessive vaginal bleeding. The cells were taken to see if they would multiply indefinitely, for the purposes of research.

For the first time in history, the cells did, spurring almost 75,000 studies that helped modern medicine progress, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The “first immortal line of human cells”, named HeLa, have been reproduced billions of times for medical research, and have allowed for the development of the HPV vaccine, the polio vaccine, drugs for HIV/AIDS, haemophilia, leukaemia, and Parkinson’s disease.

They have even been used to study the Covid-19 vaccines. 

Lacks died at the age of 31, eight months after she first learned she had cervical cancer.  Her family has sued Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. for reproducing and selling “stolen” cells for a profit. It is now against American law to extract a patient’s cells for research without their consent.  

“Indeed, Black suffering has fueled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition. Various studies, both documented and undocumented, have thrived off the dehumanization of Black people,” reads the suit, filed on 4 October. It said the company was part of “a racially unjust system”.

The same day, marking her 70th death anniversary, the WHO awarded Lacks posthumously for her contributions to medical research.

“In honouring Henrietta Lacks, WHO acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices, and advancing racial equity in health and science,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “It’s also an opportunity to recognize women — particularly women of colour — who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.”

Contributions were hidden

HeLa cells are part of an immortalised cell line, which according to Science Direct, are “cells that have been artificially manipulated to proliferate indefinitely and can, thus, be cultured over several generations”.

According to the Henrietta Lacks Initiative, over 50,000,000 metric tonnes of HeLa cells have been distributed around the world for medical research.

But the scientific community kept Lacks’s identity hidden, and no one in her family knew about her contributions till 1973, over 20 years after her death, when her name was leaked to the press.

“My mother’s contributions, once hidden, are now being rightfully honored for their global impact,” said Lawrence Lacks, Sr., Henrietta Lacks’ eldest son, at the WHO’s award ceremony.

Also read: Risky to take aspirin if you don’t have heart attack, stroke history — US body reverses stand


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