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Henrietta Lacks family divided over HBO movie

A day after the eldest son of Henrietta Lacks admonished HBO for an upcoming movie about his mother and the use of her cells, a second son threw his support behind the drama starring Oprah Winfrey that will air next month.

David Lacks Sr. was among a group of family members who issued a statement Tuesday endorsing the movie as well as the bestselling book it is based on: "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot.


The statement was issued through the Lyceum Agency, which books speaking engagements for family members.

It came a day after Lawrence Lacks, the eldest son of Henrietta Lacks, said the movie exploits his mother's legacy. As executor of his mother's estate, Lacks said decisions have been made without his input.


"The Lacks family is a large and diverse group whose members have distinct opinions, but we are all entitled to speak publicly about our family's legacy and our individual experiences," said the statement from David Lacks Sr. and other family members. "We will continue to spread our positive message to schools, libraries, associations, and community organizations worldwide, ensuring that Henrietta Lacks' contributions to humanity are never forgotten.

"We will also continue to support the book, the forthcoming HBO film, and speaking opportunities for our family."

Ron Lacks, the son of Lawrence Lacks, the estate's executor, scoffed at the letter from other family members, calling it a "crock of you know what." Everyone is benefiting from his grandmother's story except the family, he said.

Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took the cells from the 31-year-old Turners Station woman during a diagnostic procedure before she died of an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951.

Known as the HeLa cells, they became the first to live outside the body in a glass tube and subsequently the most widely used human cells in scientific research. Vaccines, cancer treatments and in vitro fertilization are among the many medical techniques derived from her cells.

The best-selling book about her and her cells, published in 2010, and the recent publicity about the movie have created a rift in the Lacks family.

Lawrence Lacks and some family members said in February that the Johns Hopkins University should compensate the family for the unauthorized use of his mother's cells.

He also criticized The National Institutes of Health for not getting his consent when the agency came to an agreement in 2013 with some of Lacks' family that required scientists to get permission from the government agency to use her genetic blueprint. The agreement also required researchers who get NIH funding to use a database of Lacks' genome that they can only access by applying through the federal agency. One of her grandsons and a great-granddaughter were appointed to a working group to help make the decisions.


Johns Hopkins officials said that when the cells were taken there was no established practice for informing or obtaining consent from cell or tissue donors, nor were there any regulations on the use of cells in research.

Ron Lacks and his father also said that there are many inaccuracies in Skloot's book.

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"The way she portrayed the family is horrible," he said.

The publisher has said it stands behind the book's accuracy. The letter Tuesday from David Lacks as well as grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a daughter-in-law of Henrietta Lacks also defended its accuracy.

"We support Rebecca Skloot's meticulously researched and award-winning book, 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,'" their statement said. "While the book was in progress, Ms. Skloot provided members of our family with copies of the manuscript and solicited our insights and corrections, which she faithfully incorporated into the book before its publication in 2010."

Alfred Carter Jr., one of Henrietta Lack's grandsons, supports Lawrence Lacks' push to get compensation, but he still signed Tuesday's letter.


"Despite the pain we have experienced, we are committed to supporting the miraculous advancements facilitated by the HeLa cells and to moving forward in a meaningful way," the statement said. "To this end, we support the ongoing work of institutions that use Henrietta's cells in research to save millions of lives, and we acknowledge their efforts to preserve Henrietta's rich legacy. Our goal is to continue advancing medical science while protecting our family's privacy and telling Henrietta's story."