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Ron Lacks Family is Still Using Grandmother’s Cells like Chattel

Ron Lacks, the grandson of Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old Black woman who had her body tissue stolen in the 1950s and eventually became a cornerstone of modern medicine, said his family has been struggling for decades to reclaim his grandmother’s heritage. Along with civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, the family filed their first federal lawsuit on Monday, which they told The Daily Beast will hopefully give them the sense of ownership they’ve always sought.

During Lacks’ treatment at John Hopkins Hospital in 1951, white doctors took a tissue from her malignant tumor without her knowledge. “We’re just trying to take back control of Henrietta’s legacy,” Ron Lacks told The Daily Beast. “Everyone has been benefiting from Henrietta’s cells except for her family.” Doctors transformed the cells into a miracle cell line used worldwide to test new medicines and viruses after they discovered they were reproducing and living outside of her body.

However, Lacks, who died less than a year after her treatment, never gave her permission for the tissue to be taken, and her family has never benefited from the discoveries for a long time. After a best-selling book in 2010 and an HBO documentary featuring Oprah Winfrey in 2017, Lack’s story became well-known. With the revived focus on Lacks, her family has attempted to acquire more control over using her HeLa cell line and be compensated for the way it has been purchased and sold for medical breakthroughs.

Despite widespread awareness of how Lacks’ cells were stolen in the first place, the corporation has continued to make a “conscious choice to market and mass create” Lacks’ tissue, according to the lawsuit. In addition, despite the company’s massive revenue—more than $30 billion every year, according to their website—the suit claims that “Ms. Lacks’ Estate and family haven’t seen a dollar.”

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