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70 Years After Her Death, The Family of Henrietta Lacks Sues Biotech Company For Non-Consensual Use of Her Cells

The cells of Henrietta Lacks, who died in 1951, have played a key role in several medical breakthroughs over the decades. Her family has filed a suit against Thermo Fisher Scientific for profiting unjustly from those cells.

By Constance Johnson
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On the 70th anniversary of the death of Henrietta Lacks, her family filed a lawsuit against a multi-billion-dollar biotechnology company accusing it of “unjust enrichment” for making and selling products that relied on tissues taken from her body without consent by doctors at John Hopkins University and “a racially unjust medical system.”

“This will not be passed on through another generation,” Ron Lacks, her grandson, said at a news conference on Monday. “We want the world to know that we want our family’s legacy back.”

Lacks died of cervical cancer on Oct. 4, 1951. But the cells taken from the then 31-year-old mother of five had unique properties. According to the lawsuit, unlike most cells after they are removed, hers survived and reproduced in the laboratory. Researchers refer to Lacks’ cultivated cell line as the “HeLa” cell line, named after the first and last letters of Lacks’ name. 

Those cells “continue to impact the world,” according to John Hopkins. They have been used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans. They have also been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine, and more recently the coronavirus vaccines.

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The subject of the lawsuit, Thermo Fisher Scientific, based in Waltham, Massachusetts, has not responded to a request for comment by Oxygen.com. It generates nearly $35 billion in annual revenue, according to its website

“Medical research has a long, troubled racial history. The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout U.S. history,” the lawsuit states. “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.”

John Hopkins has said it never sold or profited from the cells line, but many companies have patented ways of using them, the lawsuit asserts. 

Ben Crump, one of the attorneys representing the Lacks family, told the Associated Press that distributors have made billions from the genetic material “stolen” from her body.

Lacks’ medical legacy would have likely remained hidden if not for a bestselling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Hacks,” by Rebecca Skloot, published in 2010. It was later made into an HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey, as Lacks’ daughter.

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Shobita Parthasarathy, a University of Michigan professor of public policy, told Associated Press that the lawsuit comes at time when Lacks’ family is likely to have a sympathetic audience.

“We are at a moment, not just after the murder of George Floyd but also the pandemic, where we have seen structural racism in action in all sorts of places,” Parthasarathy said. “We keep talking about a racial reckoning, and that reckoning is happening in science and medicine as well.

The lawsuit is asking the court to order Thermo Fisher to “disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks.” The lawsuit also wants to stop the company from using Lacks’ cells without the estate’s permission.

John Hopkins reviewed its relationship with Lacks and her family after the book was published.

“At several points across the decades, we found that John Hopkins could – and should have – done more to inform and work with members of Henrietta Lacks’ family out of respect for them, their privacy and their personal interests,” John Hopkins said on its website.

“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 legacy of racial injustice embedded in the U.S. research and medical systems,” the lawsuit states. “Black people have a right to control their bodies. And yet Thermo Fisher Scientific treats Henrietta Lacks' living cells as chattel to be bought and sold.”

Other companies could soon face similar legal challenges.

“Thermo Fisher Scientific is one of several corporations that made a conscious choice to profit from the assault of Henrietta Lacks,” Chris Seeger one of the attorneys in the case told CNN. "Thermos Fisher Scientific "shouldn't feel too alone because they're going to have a lot of company soon."