In a previous issue of SR (2 February 2022
) ,I told the tale of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman, who died in a Baltimore hospital in 1951 of cervical cancer.
Cells from her tumour were sampled, labelled as 'HeLa' and, without her knowledge or consent, were sent to a research laboratory. There they were discovered to have the most amazing property of rapid reproduction outside the human body – something which had never been found in human cells before. Samples were subsequently distributed widely to research laboratories and pharmaceutical firms, and the cells' properties gave rise to huge advances in cancer treatments, drug testing, vaccine developments, IVF and many other successful pioneering medical advances.
A number of pharmaceutical marketing firms benefited hugely to the tune of billions of dollars over the decades by supplying modified strains of HeLa cells to researchers. Principal among these was the company Thermo Fisher Scientific. The Lacks family who had lived through the years of the mid-20th century in deep poverty, had benefited little from the hugely successful and lucrative commercial exploitation of their mother's cells.
The extraordinary story of Henrietta and the way her family were treated was the subject of a book by Rebecca Skloot, and a 2017 Oprah Winfrey film giving much needed publicity to similar cases in which medical samples, taken without knowledge or consent, are subsequently used to the monetary benefit of others – often through patenting procedures unbeknownst to the owner of the sample.
In October 2021, the Lacks family initiated a legal claim for compensation against Thermo Fisher Scientific, citing the company's 'unjust enrichment' derived from their mother's cells, and on 1 August 2023 an announcement was made that the case had been successfully resolved in their favour, with a financial settlement having been agreed between the family and the pharmaceutical company.
According to the report in Science
journal: 'No financial payments or other terms of the settlement were disclosed, and no judge ruled on the fundamentals of the unusual claim. But some have nevertheless claimed it as precedent setting. And the family's lawyers have said they may go after other companies marketing the HeLa cells, which are still widely used in medical research, or in products based on them'.
It would appear that Thermo Fisher Scientific have given the Lacks family a generous settlement to make the hassle of the case and all it might disclose go away. Judging by the rest of the account in Science
, lawyers in the US are going to be busy with a wide range of law suits brought before them, trying to legally define 'unjust enrichment', deal with statutes of limitations, charges of racial prejudice, definitions of 'informed consent' – consenting to surgery or research is not consent to commercialisation – codes of ethics in complex medical situations, and much more.
Should we watch out for a series of such legal cases coming soon to courts on this side of the Atlantic?
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