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The Economic Impact of Henrietta Lacks: Who Profits from Our Cells?

Aug 24, 2023

Hello, this is Alan Robert, your host for English for Economists. Welcome to podcast number 79. In today’s episode, I touch on a story blending ethics, economics, and medical research so you can learn some great vocabulary.

And when I say that I will “touch on a story”. If someone says they are going to ‘touch on a story’ it is because they plan to give you the main, general idea.  This is not a ‘deep dive’. I am just going to ‘touch on the story’, and I hope to teach you some useful English words along the way.

Listen to this headline: “Family of Henrietta Lacks files new lawsuit over cells harvested without her consent.” This was published by NBC news in the second week of August 2023.

So, who is Henrietta Lacks, and why is there a lawsuit?

I’ll tell you about Henrietta soon, but first I want to be sure that you know what these words mean. Listen:

Cells: The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. In our context, it refers to Henrietta Lacks’ biological cells used in research.

Harvested: A term often used in agriculture. Farmers plant their crops, the crops grow, then they harvest them at the end of the season. They collect their crops. Harvest. But in the context of our story today, it refers to cells that were collected from Henrietta Lacks during a biopsy, a kind of surgical procedure, and later used for medical research.

Consent: An agreement or permission. The essence of today’s story is that Henrietta’s cells were taken without this critical element.

Lawsuit: A legal case brought to a court where one party claims to have suffered a loss due to another party’s actions.

Unjust: Not based on or behaving according to what is morally right or fair. When companies profit from Henrietta’s cells, are they acting justly or unjustly, especially given the lack of consent?

Henrietta Lacks was a woman whose cells were harvested from her body without her consent during a medical procedure. As it turns out, Henrietta’s cells had a very special quality! They were the first human cells to continuously grow and reproduce in lab dishes. This made them incredibly useful for scientists who used these cells to make incredible contributions to medical research. Some say they have become a ‘cornerstone’, in other words one of the foundations. HeLa cells helped lead to the development of the polio vaccine, genetic mapping and even Covid-19 shots. Henrietta’s cells became an incredible tool.

So let me explain the current conflict and why Henrietta’s decendents are suing a firm involved in medical research.  Well, this is where the story begins, and it is fundamentally about the concepts of property, as it applies to our own body. Hear me out: Henrietta’s cells were taken way back in the year 1951, and when doctors took those cells, there was no law to stop it from happening. They didn’t have to ask permission. That is the way things were done. So, they took Henrietta’s cells without permission, the cells multiplied, and they were used by for medical  research.  But, this act of taking cells without permission. Henrietta never agreed to it. She wasn’t asked.

A lawsuit was filed by Henrietta’s family against institutions that, they believe, unjustly profited from these cells. You may wonder, what makes it just or unjust? It’s the principle of someone profiting from another’s genetic material without permission or compensation.

What’s clear is that there are considerable economic stakes in this domain. Companies stand to gain immensely from research, but at what cost to individual rights and ethical considerations?

As far as the Henrietta’s case is concerned, her family has already won the first lawsuit and have been paid an undisclosed amount by one medical research institution. Now, the family is suing another one, and based on the precedent established by their first win, they have a solid chance to win the next, and subsequent lawsuits, should they choose to pursue the case.

We’ll keep our eyes on this case and I’ll let you know how it develops.

Now before we do the final review, I want to remind you about my upcoming video course called “Economists in Action”. I am very excited about the course. It contains twelve chapters that are full of great vocabulary you need to know. Not only is the course structured to help you build vocabulary, but it is designed to help your reading and listening comprehension, too. It will give you a solid foundation, and I’ll give you more news about that soon.

To wrap up, our key vocabulary for today’s episode:

  1. Harvested
  2. Consent
  3. Lawsuit
  4. Unjust

To find a link to the article I quoted, check out the podcast notes on my webpage, englishforeconomists.com. You can subscribe there too so you will never miss a lesson.  

Thank you for joining me today. Remember, the world of economics is vast, interconnected, and deeply human. Stay curious, and I’ll be back soon with more specialized vocabulary for you soon. Until then, take care. Goodbye!

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/family-henrietta-lacks-files-new-lawsuit-cells-harvested-consent-rcna99444

 

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