Henrietta Lacks’ family files lawsuit against pharma company over use of cells

The HeLa cells were unusual because they were the first found to grow outside the body and not die within days.

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The estate of Henrietta Lacks has teamed with renowned civil rights and personal injury attorney Ben Crump to sue Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc., a multibillion-dollar biotechnology corporation that has profited greatly off its mass production of Lacks’ living tissue.

The corporation used Lacks’ tissue knowing it had been taken from her tumor without her consent by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital before she died of cervical cancer in 1951, NBC reports.

Henrietta Lacks thegrio.com
(Credit: John Hopkins/Lacks Family)

Lacks’ cells, known as HeLa cells, were unusual because they were the first found to grow outside of the body and not die within days, theGrio previously reported. In fact, they were able to reproduce an entire generation every 24 hours, according to reports. Cells taken from Lacks helped lead to a multitude of medical treatments, but neither she nor her family gave consent for their use.

Her descendants now seek compensation from big pharmaceutical companies that profited from using HeLa cells in medical research. A press release from Ben Crump Law notes that the taking of her cells is considered part of a conspiracy to harvest tissue for research from Black women without their knowledge or consent in racially segregated wards throughout the 1950s.

Per the press release issued Monday, the suit alleges that Thermo Fisher Scientific sells multiple products containing the HeLa cell line to buyers across the globe. 

Henrietta Lacks thegrio.com
Cells taken from Henrietta Lacks, shown in the 1940s, eventually helped lead to a multitude of medical treatments. But neither she nor her family gave consent. (Credit: John Hopkins University/Lacks Family)

“In the last several years, Thermo Fisher Scientific has made staggering profits in the tens of millions of dollars by using the HeLa cell line – all while Ms. Lacks’ Estate and family haven’t seen a dime of it,” the complaint states. 

According to the complaint, Thermo Fisher seeks intellectual property rights to these products, staking a claim to Lacks’ genetic material for its own pecuniary gain – even though the company “has known that HeLa cells were stolen from Ms. Lacks.”

“Thermo Fisher Scientific’s choice to continue selling HeLa cells in spite of the cell lines’ origin and the concrete harms it inflicts on the Lacks family can only be understood as a choice to embrace a legacy of racial injustice embedded in the U.S. research and medical systems,” Crump said. “Black people have the right to control their bodies. And yet Thermo Fisher Scientific treats Henrietta Lacks’ living cells as chattel to be bought and sold.”

The lawsuit charges Thermo Fisher Scientific with a single cause of action – unjust enrichment – for its choice to profit from the unlawful conduct of Johns Hopkins’ doctors, making the company liable for its profits as a “conscious wrongdoer” under settled law.

“Thermo Fisher Scientific is one of several corporations that made a conscious choice to profit from the assault of Henrietta Lacks,” said co-counsel Chris Seeger. “Recoupment of their ill-gotten gains, which rightfully belong to Ms. Lacks’ estate, is just the first step toward obtaining justice for Ms. Lacks and her descendants.”

“The American pharmaceutical community has a shameful history of profiting off research at the expense of Black people without their knowledge, consent, or benefit, leading to mass profits for pharmaceutical companies from our illnesses and our very bodies,” said Crump in a previous statement.

“There is no clearer example of this than Henrietta Lacks and the seemingly endless manipulation of her genetic material. The pharmaceutical companies have been unjustly enriched by this unethical taking of her cells, while Henrietta Lacks’ family has never been afforded any equity,” he continued.

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