S. E. Williams |
As a 31-year-old Black woman lay dying of cervical cancer in 1951, doctors at today’s highly acclaimed Johns Hopkins Hospital, took what would become known as the “immortal cells” from a young mother named Henrietta Lacks.
The cells were labeled “immortal cells” because of their unique properties. While most cells died soon after being removed from a human body–Lacks’ cells not only survived, they thrived. The cells however, were taken without her knowledge or consent–a real world example of what was then, and what allegedly continues to be, a racially unjust medical system.
On Monday, seventy years to the day of her death, the descendants of Henrietta Lacks filed a legal claim for justice against one of the companies continuing to use her cells.
The extraordinary value of HeLa cells
The significance of Lacks’s cells, named HeLa cells (for Henrietta Lacks), is not only were they the first human cells to survive and thrive outside the human body, they were the first to be successfully cloned and they continue to be replicated for use all over the world. HeLa cells are also considered by experts as the cornerstone of modern medicine.
Beyond this, the availability of HeLa cells for research has produced innumerable innovations both scientific and medical including everything from mapping the human genome to developments ranging from the polio vaccine to today’s life-saving COVID-19 vaccines.
The immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks have made billions of dollars for research companies and medical institutions while her family struggled to survive.
A righteous cause
Few can argue the lawsuit filed by the estate of Henrietta Lacks is righteous, but the outcome may hinge on the historical circumstances that existed when Lacks’ cells were harvested.
When they were taken In 1951, it was long before consent requirements were established for such actions ahd history teaches us Ms. Lacks probably received even less consideration because she was Black.
The lawsuit names Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. of Waltham of Massachusetts for continuing to commercialize the HeLa cells even though this and other companies know their origins. The historical injustice of this situation was best expressed by the attorney representing the Lacks family as quoted by MassLive News.
“Why is it that they [Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. ] have intellectual rights to her cells and can benefit billions of dollars when her family, her flesh and blood, her Black children, get nothing?” asked attorney Ben Crump rhetorically on Monday.
Johns Hopkins claims it never sold nor profited from the HeLa cell lines, though companies have patented various ways of using them, according to Crump. Another family attorney left the impression other companies using the cells may also soon find themselves facing similar claims.
The lawsuit further seeks to forbid Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. from using the HeLa cell line without express permission of the Henrietta Lacks’ estate.