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  • Posted August 14, 2023

New Lawsuit Filed by Family of Henrietta Lacks Over Unauthorized Use of Her Cells

The family of Henrietta Lacks has filed another in a series of planned lawsuits over the use of Lacks' cells without her knowledge or consent.

Known as the HeLa cell line, it has changed modern medicine because of the cells' unusual ability to survive in laboratories, making it possible for researchers to reproduce studies using identical material.

This second lawsuit, filed Thursday in Baltimore, is against the California-based biopharmaceutical company Ultragenyx.

The new lawsuit claims that Ultragenyx leadership did not seek the Lacks family's permission to use the cells after learning of their origin, the AP reported.

“Ultragenyx's choice to continue utilizing HeLa cells despite the cell line's origin and the concrete harm it inflicts on the Lacks family can only be understood as a choice to embrace a legacy of racial injustice embedded in the U.S. research and medical systems,” attorney Ben Crump said in a statement. “Like anyone else, Black people have the right to control their bodies.”

The suit was filed in the same location where a 2021 lawsuit was settled last week against biotech company Thermo Fisher Scientific.

The family plans has said it plans to file more lawsuits.

The lawsuits have accused the companies of profiting off the cells from Lacks, a Black woman.

It was not illegal for doctors to harvest cells without a patient's permission at the time this happened to Lacks in the early 1950s, but the family has said the companies continue to commercialize the cell line even though they know the origin.

“Medical research has a long, troubled racial history,” family attorneys wrote. “The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout American history. Indeed, Black suffering has fueled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition.”

Lacks died at age 31 after being diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. A mother of five, she lived outside Baltimore. Doctors from Johns Hopkins Hospital collected and saved her cells, and hospital officials have said that Johns Hopkins never sold or profited from the cell line.

The impact of the cells, as well as the lives of Lacks and her family, have been written about in a bestselling book by Rebecca Skloot, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The book was published in 2010 and then made into an HBO movie in which Oprah Winfrey played Lacks' daughter.

Among the medical innovations possible because of the HeLa cells are vaccines and genetic mapping.

Ultragenyx has used the cells to develop gene therapy products. Other companies have patented other ways to use the cells, the AP reported.

More information

The National Institutes of Health has more on HeLa cells.

SOURCE: Associated Press

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