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Lawrence Lacks and Ron Lacks, the son and grandson of Henrietta Lacks, have launched a campaign against the book and movie, starring Oprah, about Henrietta Lacks, claiming inaccuracies

Source: The Washington Post / Getty

The cells of Henrietta Lacks have been used to conduct groundbreaking scientific research in the medical field for decades, however, her family members say they haven’t received any compensation from big companies who continue to profit off her legacy.

On Oct.4, Lacks’s decedents officially filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fischer Scientific Inc for their unjust use of her “HeLa cells” and tissue samples, CNN reported.

Lacks’ cells made a medical breakthrough back in 1950 when doctors at John Hopkins Hospital treated the young mother of five for a large cervical tumor. Researchers discovered that Lacks’ cancer cells continued to grow and rapidly reproduce after they were removed from her body. The remarkable cells were later dubbed HeLa cells and were used to make a number of big medical advancements throughout history including the development of the polio vaccine and even cancer treatments. However, at the time, all of this was done without her estate’s knowledge or consent. Lacks died that year from cancer at the age of 31.

According to the suit that was filed in Maryland federal court, Lacks’ family members allege that Thermo Fisher Scientific is profiting off the “unlawful conduct” of John Hopkins Hospital by selling and mass-producing Lacks’ living cell tissue for their newly developed cell line.

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Civil rights attorney Ben Crump is helping to represent the family in their decades-long battle for justice. They are requesting that the company give up “the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks,” in addition to other costs and expenses, which the family estimates to be around $250 billion, according to the court documents.

One part of the lawsuit says that “the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout U.S. history. Indeed, Black suffering has fueled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition,” Reuters noted.

Thermo Fischer Scientific has yet to comment on the suit, however, John Hopkins did release a statement telling the public that what happened to Lacks years ago would never happen in today’s medical field.

“At that time, our physician-researchers routinely collected extra cell samples from cervical cancer patients during biopsies to be used for research purposes regardless of the race or socio-economic status of the patient,” the statement read. “In 1951, the U.S. health system did not yet have any established practices for informing or obtaining consent from patients when retrieving extra cell or tissue samples from procedures to use for research purposes.”
“While we cannot change the past, we at Johns Hopkins never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of the HeLa cells,” it continued. “In addition, in 2013, Johns Hopkins worked with members of the Lacks family and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to help broker an agreement that requires scientists to receive permission to use Henrietta Lacks’ genetic blueprint or to use HeLa cells in NIH funded research.”
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