Law Pod UK latest: Henrietta Lacks

15 November 2021 by

A “HeLa” cell is, or was, the name of a cell from a line of fast producing cancer cells that was taken from the tumour of a patient who died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. These cells reproduce at such a rate they have been described as “immortal” and they have touched all corners of medical research and therapy in the past seven decades. They’ve formed the basis of the polio vaccine; they’ve helped with research into IVF and infertility as well as HIV. They were of tremendous importance to medicine then and medicine now.

Henrietta Lacks’ family, once they were made aware of the continuing research on her cells, have made various efforts to claim reparations for this non-consensual use of her body parts. The estate has now launched proceedings against Thermo Fisher, the pharmaceutical company that bought the cells from the hospital at the time; see my previous post on this lawsuit here.

In Episode 152 of Law Pod UK I discuss this case with Jacob Serco, Professor of Law at the College of Law and a specialist in genomic biology at the University of Illinois, where his research focuses on the legal and ethical implications of advanced biotechnologies, especially as related to intellectual property. He is a leading expert on IP protection for genome-editing technologies, including CRISPR.

Professor Serco provides an illuminating guide to the US law on biotechnology in this episode and we discuss the prospects of this particular lawsuit. But this is only the latest of a series of episodes in which Henrietta Lacks’ cells have been in the limelight. In October last year the Lacks foundation received a “six figure”  donation  from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute by way of “reparation”; in 2013 the US National Institute of Health settled upon a new agreement under which Lack’s genome data would be accessible only to those who apply for and are granted permission. The modern interest in her case was sparked by the book by Rebecca Skloot about her case.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks stayed on the NYT bestseller list for two years and was followed by a film of the same name.

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