Family of Woman whose Cells Led to breakthroughs in Medicine May Finally Get Justice


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A Summary of Alex Spenser‘s article “Henrietta Lacks’ Family Is Close to Getting Justice for Her Stolen Cells” published at Word In Black on June 2, 2023.

Artistic illustration of Henrietta Lacks. Lacks’ cells doubled every 20-24 hours. Today, these incredible cells — nicknamed “HeLa” cells, from the first two letters of her first and last names — are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans. Image credit: Justus Selah in collaboration with AI

The family of Henrietta Lacks is the closest they have ever gotten to getting justice for their loved one. Pharmaceutical companies have made hefty profits from unethical harvesting Henrietta’s cells, but neither the late Henrietta nor her family have seen a dime of the earnings made from what was stolen from her body and sold in various products. The family announced a civil lawsuit last year after Henrietta’s eldest grandson, Ron Lacks, wrote and published “Henrietta Lacks: The Untold Story.” The Lacks took the case before a federal judge in Baltimore on May 17, 2022, and are now awaiting a ruling. Ron, 63, said walking through the courtroom doors for the first time as a family was an emotional experience. He grew up in Baltimore watching his parents struggle to get “justice in an unjust system” for his paternal grandmother, and when he became an adult, he took up the mantle and got involved.

He watched as people outside the family started telling the family’s narrative, writing books and producing movies. In 2010, Rebecca Skloot wrote “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which was later adapted into an HBO film. Ron’s father was deeply affected by what happened to Henrietta and struggled to talk about it. After becoming frustrated by the narrative in Skloot’s projects, Ron managed to share the good memories he had of his mother with the world. Since they were stolen, her cells have played a critical role in some of the world’s most advanced medical discoveries, including the study of AIDS and leukemia, the effect of zero gravity in space, and the development of the polio and COVID-19 vaccines.

The HeLa cells used in a product by Henrietta Lacks are not derived from her, but they are her living cells. If the courts rule in favor of the Lacks family, there could be major ripple effects, as other pharmaceutical companies will be up next for lawsuits, and this would also be a big win for all Black people, who’ve suffered in the U.S. for centuries without being given the justice that’s due. Seeger and Crump will be with the family the whole way, trying to help them get the narrative back from those who stole the cells from Henrietta Lacks. If the courts rule in favor of the Lacks family, there could be major ripple effects, as other pharmaceutical companies will be up next for lawsuit. This will be a big win for all Black people.

Video spotlighting Ron Lacks book Henrietta Lacks: The Untold Story

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