Henrietta Lacks’ estate sues company for selling ‘HeLa’ cells

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Henrietta Lacks' estate sues company for selling 'HeLa' cells

The estate of Henrietta Lacks — whose cloned cells have led to countless medical advances — is suing a pharmaceutical company for taking her cells for profit without her consent for the past 70 years.

Lacks, a black mother of five, was 31 years old when she visited John Hopkins Hospital in 1951 complaining of vaginal hemorrhaging, where doctors discovered a malignant tumor on her cervix, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine

Tissue samples from her cervix were taken without her permission before she died of cancer and sent to Dr. George Gey, who discovered that unlike other cells he’d collected that would quickly die, Lacks’ unique cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours, essentially immortalizing the cells.

Able to be reproduced infinitely, the “HeLA” cell line has led to crucial medical breakthroughs such as the polio vaccine, mapping the human genome and even the COVID-19 vaccine.

For decades, Lacks’ relatives remained unaware that her harvested cells were so integral to groundbreaking medical research.

A new lawsuit from Lacks’ family states that Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., of Waltham, Massachusetts, has continued to rake in profits from research using the HeLa cells, even after the source of the cells has become known.

Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks’ relatives remained unaware that her harvested cells were so integral to groundbreaking medical research.
ITV / Rex USA
the exterior of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., in Waltham, Mass
The federal lawsuit filed Monday in Baltimore says Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., of Rockville, Maryland, knowingly mass produced and sold tissue that was taken from Henrietta Lacks.
AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File

“It is outrageous that this company would think that they have intellectual property rights to their grandmother’s cells. Why is it that they have intellectual rights to her cells and can benefit billions of dollars when her family, her flesh and blood, her Black children, get nothing?” one of the family’s attorneys, Ben Crump, said Monday at a news conference outside the federal courthouse in Baltimore.

Johns Hopkins University claims that it never sold or profited from the cell lines, however many companies have patented ways of using Lacks’ genetic material. The university has acknowledged an ethical responsibility.

The lawsuit asks the court to order Thermo Fisher Scientific to  “disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks” as well as be barred from using HeLa cells without the estate’s permission.

The Johns Hopkins Hospital is shown on March 28, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland
Henrietta Lacks was 31 years old when she visited John Hopkins Hospital in 1951 complaining of vaginal hemorrhaging.
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Attorney Ben Crump, second from left, walks with Ron Lacks, left, Alfred Lacks Carter, third from left, both grandsons of Henrietta Lacks, and other descendants of Lacks, whose cells have been used in medical research without her permission, outside the federal courthouse in Baltimore, Monday, Oct. 4, 2021
Henrietta Lacks’ estate is filing a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific for using her cells, known as HeLa cells.
AP Photo/Steve Ruark

The suit alleges that Lacks’ exploitation is a “common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history.”

“Indeed, Black suffering has fueled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition. Various studies, both documented and undocumented, have thrived off the dehumanization of Black people.”

Crump, a prominent Florida-based civil rights attorney, has also represented the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

Descendants of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells, known as HeLa cells, have been used in medical research without her permission, say a prayer with attorneys outside the federal courthouse in Baltimore, Monday, Oct. 4, 2021.
Descendants of Henrietta Lacks say a prayer with attorneys outside the federal courthouse in Baltimore, Monday, Oct. 4, 2021.
AP Photo/Steve Ruark

Another family attorney, Christopher Seeger, hinted that other biotech companies may be sued in the future.

“It’s about time,” said grandson Ron Lacks. “Seventy years later, we mourn Henrietta Lacks, and we will celebrate taking back control of Henrietta Lacks’ legacy. This will not be passed on to another generation of Lackses.”

A new statue of Lacks was also unveiled at the University of Bristol on Monday, becoming the first public sculpture of a black woman created by a black woman in the United Kingdom.

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