Do you own your own cells?

An immortal cell line from the 1950s is at the centre of a new lawsuit
09 November 2021


HeLa cells - collected originally from cancer patient Henrietta Lacks - growing in culture.


A lawsuit is being brought against a large scientific company over their use of a particular type of cell, known as HeLa cells.

These cells, which are named after the person from whom they were originally taken, Henrietta Lacks, are some of the most widely used cells in scientific research today, despite there being prominent ethical questions about their origin. The case has been filed based on the fact that the company in question has reproduced and sold these cells for monetary gain, without giving a share of the profits to the Lacks family.

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a black woman from the USA, went to a segregated ward in Johns Hopkins hospital after suffering from the sensation of there being a “knot” in her stomach. Following tests, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer, a disease from which she would later pass away. As part of her treatment, tissue samples were taken from her cervix, but without her consent.

Cells from these samples were then cultivated in a laboratory, giving rise to a line of cells that still exists today. At the time, the fact that these cells could be maintained in the laboratory was a remarkable finding, as prior to this, scientists at the hospital had been unsuccessful in their attempts to create such a cell line for use in research.

Rosalind English, co-editor of the UK Human Rights Blog and expert in the law of genetics, highlighted the importance of this breakthrough to science, “Over the last decades, her line of cells have touched almost every aspect of medicine. They’ve formed the basis of the polio vaccine, they have helped with research into infertility, and they were even involved in early efforts to find a vaccine against Covid-19.”

However, as Rosalind went on to say, “This is a very difficult area in terms of ethics, and indeed law... These are Henrietta Lacks’ own cells that are serving the pharmaceutical companies, and indeed medicine, to great profit and benefit to medicine. Should the family get compensation? Well, that, unfortunately, is a legal question and the answer is not at all easy.”

While the ubiquity of HeLa cells means that the profits made from them are very significant, it means that a loss for the scientific company could have significant consequences. “The HeLa cell line is so widely spread that in order to stop using them, there would be so many patents and products that would have to be thrown out of the window. It would do considerable damage to research and science.”

That said, the law’s current stance with regards to the ownership of body parts is likely to be key. “The need to get consent is a very difficult legal question because, in essence, in the [United] States, as well as the United Kingdom, there is no concept of property in one’s own body… It is still legal to use the Henrietta Lacks kind of cell, even without her consent, so it’s very difficult to build a legal case when there’s no settled law of property in body parts.”


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