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Family of Henrietta Lacks, unwilling donor of cells, sue pharmaceutical companies for theft

Cells were originally biopsied without Lacks’s consent in 1951.

Updated: July 31, 2021 - 9:31am

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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’s 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. 

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