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You’ve probably heard the story of Henrietta Lacks’ cells, which spawned more than 17,000 patents, a bestselling book and a made-for-TV movie starring Oprah. The cancer cells were harvested from Lacks’ cervix without her consent in 1951. According to Johns Hopkins, where doctors took the cells, the resulting “immortal” cell line, known as HeLa, has contributed to medical breakthroughs from research on the effects of zero gravity in outer space and the development of the polio vaccine, to the study of leukemia and the AIDS virus.

Conspicuously missing from some of the stories about the legacy of Lacks’ cells, however, is the story of what has happened to her descendants. Many of them, including Lacks’ grandsons, haven’t seen any compensation or recognition as their grandmother’s cells rack up accolades and scientific discoveries. Now, they’re working with Christina Bostick, founder and managing director of Bostick Law Firm, who is trying to change the way we think about the cells’ autonomy by helping the cells sue for their own rights. She calls it creative litigation, and Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal discussed with her how it raises questions about what constitutes life. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: Why does this case matter to you?

…continue reading ‘Who Owns Henrietta Lacks’ Cells?’

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