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Lacks Family Member Seeks Compensation

Henrietta Lacks' son is seeking compensation from Johns Hopkins University and others for the unauthorized use of her cells, the Baltimore Sun reports.

Lacks sought treatment for aggressive cervical cancer at John Hopkins Hospital in 1951, and the HeLa cell line was developed from a biopsy obtained from her without her knowledge or consent — the US had yet to develop consent rules. Researchers have used HeLa lines to develop vaccines, cancer therapies, and in vitro fertilization techniques. The case is also the subject of Rebecca Skloot's 2010 book and a new HBO film.

Following the sequencing of HeLa cell lines in 2013, NIH officials worked with members of the Lacks family to draw up a policy for researchers to access the HeLa genome. NIH Director Francis Collins and Kathy Hudson, then the deputy director for science, outreach, and policy at the agency, and members of the Lacks family set up a panel consisting of researches, physicians, a bioethicist, and two members of the Lacks family would control access to the HeLa genome.

Lawrence Lacks, the executor of his mother's estate, argues that the agreement reached between the US National Institutes of Health and other family members wasn't valid, and he never agreed to it, the Baltimore Sun says. "My mother would be so proud that her cells saved lives," Lawrence Lacks says in a statement. "She'd be horrified that Johns Hopkins profited while her family to this day has no rights."

He, his son, and his daughter-in-law plan to file a lawsuit against Hopkins. Previously, the Sun notes, attorneys had told the family that the statute of limitations had been exceeded, but their new lawyer is turning to a "continuing tort" argument, saying that that Hopkins violated the "personal rights, privacy and body parts" over time.