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Trillions of her cells have played a pivotal role in medical research for the past 60 years, but Henrietta Lacks’s story was virtually unknown until it became the subject of a best-selling book in 2010 and an HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey seven years later.

On Monday, the family of the Black tobacco farmer, who died in 1951, filed a federal lawsuit accusing Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts-based maker of lab equipment and materials, of unfairly profiting off her cells. And a day later, Christopher Seeger, a member of the family’s legal team said the company is only “the first of many” the family plans to sue for unjust enrichment.


Lacks’s cells were taken by Johns Hopkins University in 1951 during treatment of a cancerous tumor, and eventually used in medical research to create a cell line named after her, HeLa (pronounced hee-la). It is the most prolific and widely used human cell line in biology, critical to the treatment of AIDS, hemophilia, influenza, leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, and sickle cell disease, as well as the creation of the polio vaccine and research on the effects of zero gravity in outer space.

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