Henrietta Lacks’ estate sues company for unlawful use of her cells

Henrietta Lacks' estate
Particles in HeLa cells (Photo credit: Shutterstock.com / Heiti Paves)

Henrietta Lacks’ estate filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, for unjust enrichment from the nonconsensual use and profiting from her tissue samples and cell line.

Henrietta Lacks was a Black 31-year-old woman who died in 1951 at John Hopkins Hospital from cervical cancer. Her cancer cells were taken from her body for research without her consent or knowledge.

These same cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, which is the first immortalized cell line that reproduces outside the human body. HeLa cells have given scientists the ability to create life-saving medicine and have pushed AIDS and cancer research forward.

Even though Lacks’ cell line has become a cornerstone in modern medicine and garnered billions of dollars for pharmaceutical companies, her family has never received compensation.

The family hired esteemed civil rights attorney Ben Crump back in July to explore lawsuits against as many as 100 defendants, possibly including John Hopkins Hospital.

“It is outrageous that this company would think that they have intellectual rights property to their grandmother’s cells,” Ben Crump, the family’s attorney, said Monday, Oct. 4 about Thermo Fisher Scientific at a press conference.

He continued, “Why is it 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?”

The lawsuit alleges that Thermo Fisher Scientific is profiting from the mass production and sale of Lacks’ sample tissue despite knowing that John Hopkins Hospital unlawfully took her cells.

Christopher Seeger, the family’s second attorney, suggested that this is only the start of lawsuits against companies that have profited off of Lacks’ cell line, saying Thermo Fisher Scientific “shouldn’t feel too alone because they’re going to have a lot of company soon.”

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