Family of Henrietta Lack Sues Pharmaceutical Companies For Theft After Using Cells Without Permission
The family of Henrietta Lacks—the Virginia woman whose “immortal” cells continue to be used in medical research seven decades after they were taken from her—is suing pharmaceutical companies for what the family claims is the theft of those cells. The cells were obtained from Lacks without her consent during a biopsy at Johns Hopkins University in 1951. Lacks died shortly thereafter, but the cells—which, due to mutations, can reproduce indefinitely in lab conditions—continue to be used widely in medical research today. Lacks’ family has never been compensated for the use of the cells. The lawsuit is an attempt to “right that wrong,” civil rights attorney Ben Crump said in announcing the suit.
Family of Henrietta Lacks, unwilling donor of cells, sue pharmaceutical companies for theft
Cells were originally biopsied without Lacks’s consent in 1951.
by Daniel Payne, Just The News, July 31, 2021
The family of Henrietta Lacks—the Virginia woman whose “immortal” cells continue to be used in medical research seven decades after they were taken from her—is suing pharmaceutical companies for what the family claims is the theft of those cells.
The cells were obtained from Lacks without her consent during a biopsy at Johns Hopkins University in 1951. Lacks died shortly thereafter, but the cells—which, due to mutations, can reproduce indefinitely in lab conditions—continue to be used widely in medical research today.
Lacks’ family has never been compensated for the use of the cells. The lawsuit is an attempt to “right that wrong,” civil rights attorney Ben Crump said in announcing the suit.
“We are doing our research and figuring out every pharmaceutical company that has made a product that has either used the cells to build their products or commercialize it in some way,” attorney Chris Seeger said of the suit.
Family of Henrietta Lacks sues pharmaceutical companies for theft of her cells
NBC12, July 30, 2021
BALTIMORE (WJZ) - The descendants of Henrietta Lacks are filing what could be an unprecedented lawsuit.
Her cells were taken without her permission decades ago.
To this day, for-profit pharmaceutical companies still use the cells but don’t pay the family for them.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump stood with Lacks’ family on Thursday and announced his team will be suing pharmaceutical companies who continue to use her cells without her permission.
“Her family is here today to start the journey to right that wrong,” Crump said.
In the mid-1900s, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins to get treatment for cervical cancer.
The institution itself documented what happened next.
Her cancerous cells were sent to a “nearby tissue lab” for a biopsy, where the doctor realized that instead of dying, her cells “doubled every 20 to 24 hours.”
They were nicknamed the “HeLa cells” (See more below - ed.) and played a crucial role in medical advancements.
However, doctors never asked Lacks or her family for permission to use the cells.
“The Lacks has not received anything from that theft of her cells,” her granddaughter, Kimberley Lacks, said.
The cells are still being used for medical research like developing vaccines.
Johns Hopkins has said it “celebrates and honors the incredible contribution” the HeLa cells have made to medical research.
The institution has said it “did not sell or profit from the discovery or distribution of Hela cells.”
Attorney Chris Seeger said the team is not ruling out contacting Johns Hopkins, and about a hundred other pharmaceutical companies could be potential targets.
“We are doing our research and figuring out every pharmaceutical company that has made a product that has either used the cells to build their products or commercialize it in some way,” Seeger said.
Attorneys said since companies still use the cells, the statutes of limitation shouldn’t be an issue.
Copyright 2021 WJZ via CNN Newsource. All rights reserved.
HeLa cells (1951)
Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, was a 31-year-old mother of five when she died from cervical cancer in 1951. Her name and memory live on in the form of a remarkable lineage of continually dividing cells that have achieved, to all intents and purposes, “immortality”. Her cancer cells have continued to live well beyond her death in labs around the world, replicating so prolifically that laid end-to-end they could be wrapped around the earth three times.
When Henrietta attended a cancer clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore in January 1951, the only hospital in the area to treat African Americans at that time, little did she realize that she would achieve a kind of immortality. Her surgeon, Howard Jones, took a tissue biopsy of her cancerous womb without her knowledge or consent, which was passed to George Otto Gey, a physician and cancer researcher in the same Baltimore hospital who was astonished by the ability of the cells to replicate in laboratory culture.
Normally, cancer cells would divide a few times and die off before any decent studies could be done with them. But Henrietta’s just kept on dividing and dividing, just so long as they were fed the right mix of nutrients for them to grow. Henrietta’s cancer cells became the first human “cell line” to be established in culture and Gey named them after the first two letters of her name – HeLa (pronounced “hee-la”).
HeLa cells have since become the most widely used human cell line in biological research and were critical for many biomedical breakthroughs of the past half-century. Jonas Salk, for instance, used them in 1954 to develop the polio vaccine and in the 1980s AIDS researchers used them to identify and isolate the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) while in recent years HeLa cells were critical for the “omics” revolution, from genomics to transcriptomics and proteomics.
Some 70,000 studies have been published involving the use of HeLa cells and they are in widespread use throughout the field of immunology. At least two Nobel Prizes have been awarded recently for research involving HeLa cells, one on the link between human papilloma virus and cervical cancer (2008 by Harald zur Hausen), which was shared with the discoverers of HIV (Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi), and the other into the part played by the telomerase enzyme in preventing chromosome degradation (2009 by Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak).
As for Henrietta’s extended family, they were kept in the dark about what happened to their ancestor’s unwitting bequest to medical science until relatively recently, a shocking oversight that led in the US to a change in the ethical ground-rules covering the taking and use of hospital biopsies without informed consent. The story of Lacks' life and afterlife can be better understood “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks”, a novel written by Rebecca Skloot.
The Importance of HeLa Cells
Among the important scientific discoveries of the last century was the first immortal human cell line known as “HeLa” — a remarkably durable and prolific line of cells obtained during the treatment of Henrietta’s cancer by Johns Hopkins researcher Dr. George Gey in 1951.
Although these were the first cells that could be easily shared and multiplied in a lab setting, Johns Hopkins has never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line. Rather, Johns Hopkins offered HeLa cells freely and widely for scientific research.
Over the past several decades, this cell line has contributed to many medical breakthroughs, from research on the effects of zero gravity in outer space and the development of the polio vaccine, to the study of leukemia, the AIDS virus and cancer worldwide.
Although many other cell lines are in use today, HeLa cells have supported advances in most fields of medical research in the years since HeLa cells were isolated.
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