Judge weighs motion to dismiss Henrietta Lacks’ family lawsuit over unauthorized use of her cells

Thermo Fischer reportedly made over $30 billion in revenue in 2020.

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Biotechnology company Thermo Fisher Scientific has requested that the lawsuit brought by the family of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cells have been used for research for decades, be dismissed, according to CBS-affliliated WJZ.

The original lawsuit filed against Thermo Fisher was submitted in October. The family claimed that the biotech company replicated and sold Lacks’ tissue for profit.

“This isn’t just about social justice. This is about genetic justice,” said Ben Crump when the lawsuit was initially filed, according to WJZ. Crump, one of the attorneys representing the family, added that he wants the company to “do right by Henrietta.”

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)

According to Johns Hopkins University, Lacks visited the hospital in 1951, then one of the only ones that would treat poor Black people. During treatment for a gynecological issue, doctors discovered that a group of cells in her cervix were unique.

“Where other cells would die, Mrs. Lacks’ cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours,” a statement on the university’s site said.

The statement also touted the fact that Lacks’ rare cells, called “HeLa” cells, are still being used to “study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones, and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans.”

Lacks’ cells were an integral part of the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, the university said. The statement also mentioned that it was common practice for the doctor that worked with Lacks, Dr. George Gay, to collect cells from all of his patients.

Lacks died months after visiting the hospital. Johns Hopkins said that even though it was an option, the university never sold Lacks’ sells, but offered them up for free to be used for research.

Thermo Fischer reportedly made over $30 billion in revenue in 2020, and Lacks’ family says they have not received any payment for the loved one’s contributions.

The biotech company argued that too much time has passed since the cells were taken that there is no law prohibiting them from replicating the cells. 

Crump, along with Chris Seeger is representing Lacks’ family. According to WJZ, Crump called for a reversal of the “unjust enrichment” of Thermo Fisher Scientific.

“What if she had actually been treated like a white woman and they actually got her consent and then her family estate would have permission to say you can’t use this intellectual property, her genetic make-up, without getting her permission and then having to compensate us for it,” he said, per WJZ.

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