By Deborah Bailey, Special to the AFRO
Henrietta Lacks’ cells are credited with eradicating polio, creating the field of virology and advancing breakthrough treatments in HIV and cancer. The cells from Lacks, the late housewife from the Turner Station community in Baltimore County, have traveled to outer space and are being studied now in research labs across the globe. Lacks died from cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951, but her cells are still alive, benefiting hundreds of millions of patients across the world and are available for sale.
Though the world continues to benefit from the sale of HeLa cells, cells that exhibit an amazing ability to multiply, after being taken from Lacks body and stored without her consent, none of the profits or income potential from more than 17,000 US patents involving HeLa, as they are called, or the medical and pharmaceutical discoveries based on her cells have helped members of the Lacks family.
Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s oldest son and executor of Lacks’ estate, his son Ron Lacks and several other family members are working with attorney Christina Bostick to try a new approach to gain some of the financial benefit from the famous HeLA cells for the Lacks family.
“A couple years ago, I reached out to Ron thinking that I might be able to find a way to help from a legal standpoint. We’re preparing a guardianship complaint for the cells,” Bostick told the AFRO.
“These are the only cells of their kind in known history. Mrs. Lacks’ cells don’t require her body, to live, grow and thrive,” Bostick added in explaining why she is advocating for the individual cells themselves to be considered as a “life.”
“The cell itself has a claim. It cannot communicate on its own behalf and it would be the job of some other adult to step in,” Bostick said. The attorney will be filing a guardianship claim on behalf of the Lacks estate in Baltimore County Circuit Court after Bostick secures two doctors who are willing to certify the “disability claim” for the Lacks cells.
“We feel that at least Henrietta Lacks’ estate should have guardianship over her cells,” said Ron Lacks, Henrietta’s oldest grandson. “She passed away not even knowing what a great miracle she left behind.”
Bostick said that there is a role for the public to become involved in supporting this unique approach to guardianship law. Since the cells cannot speak for themselves, the Lacks estate would need to be named legal guardian, just as in a case involving a human who was unable to speak on his/her own behalf, Bostick said.
“You need a certificate from two medical professionals verifying the individual is disabled. We’re calling on African American doctors interested in supporting the guardianship petition who would be willing to submit a certification,” Bostick said.
Lawrence Lacks said that his family tried to get information on Henrietta Lacks’ treatment at Johns Hopkins hospital for years and were repeatedly denied, even when others, like Rebecca Sloot, author of the New York Times bestselling book, the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, obtained data about the Lacks case and HeLa cells from Johns Hopkins.
Johns Hopkins hospital has acknowledged that the family was not originally informed about the existence of the cells. Hopkins said that it does not benefit from the HeLA cell line. “Johns Hopkins has never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line,” according to a statement from a Johns Hopkins Medicine website crafted in tribute to the Henrietta Lacks Legacy.
“My main aim is to see that the case gets to court. So far, the Lacks family hasn’t even had a day in court. Once we have a concrete decision from a judge then we will know in what direction to go next,” Bostick said.
“This case has been judged in the court of public opinion, by scientists, scholars and by politicians, but it hasn’t been in the courts. Courts are an essential part of American culture and this issue should get a hearing in that setting,” she added.
“Wouldn’t it be something if instead of people taking from Henrietta, a piece of her life and legacy was given back,” said Ron Lacks. “It would be wonderful if the Lacks family are finally given the chance to take some control of her stolen legacy.”