Can the ‘immortal cells’ of Henrietta Lacks sue for their own rights?

A lawyer representing the eldest son and two grandsons of Henrietta Lacks, whose “immortal cells” have been the subject of a best-selling book, a TV movie, a family feud, cutting-edge medical research and a multibillion-dollar biotech industry, announced last week that she plans to file a petition seeking “guardianship” of the cells.  

“The question we are dealing with is ‘Can the cells sue for mistreatment, misappropriation, theft and for the profits earned without their consent?’ ” said Christina J. Bostick, who is representing Lawrence Lacks, the eldest son of Lacks, and grandsons Lawrence Lacks Jr. and Ron Lacks.

Bostick said the now-famous cells were taken without consent from Lacks, an African American, during a 1951 visit to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, which was racially segregated at the time. Lawrence Lacks, the executor of Lacks’s estate, said the family did not know until many years after his mother died that her cells were living in test tubes in science labs across the world.

Because the statute of limitations for medical malpractice expired years ago, Bostick said, she decided to use “creative litigation” to help family members regain some kind of control of their mother’s cells, which have been reproduced billions of times for medical research.

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