Estate of Henrietta Lacks sues biotechnical company for nonconsensual use of her cells

Johns Hopkins Medicine, in a statement to CNN, said that what happened to Lacks in 1951 “would not happen today.”

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The family of Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cells have been used for groundbreaking scientific research for decades have filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. for unjust enrichment from the nonconsensual use and profiting from her tissue sample and cell line.

Lacks, a Black woman diagnosed with cervical cancer, had tissue taken from her cervix without her consent during a procedure at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. With the sample, a doctor at the hospital was able to create the first human cell line to reproduce outside the body.

Lacks died later that year from cancer at the age of 31.

The cell line, now known as HeLa cells, gave scientists the ability to experiment and create life-saving medicine like the polio vaccine, in-vitro fertilization and gene mapping and helped move forward cancer and AIDS research.

But the lawsuit alleges that Thermo Fisher Scientific is knowingly profiting from the “unlawful conduct” of the Johns Hopkins doctors and that its “ill-gotten gains rightfully belong to Ms. Lacks’ Estate.”

It argues that the company is “making a conscious choice to sell and mass produce the living tissue of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, grandmother, and community leader, despite the corporation’s knowledge that Ms. Lacks’ tissue was taken from her without her consent by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a racially unjust medical system.”

While the origin of HeLa cells was not clear for years, Lacks’ story has become widely known in the 21st century. It was the subject of a best-selling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which was published in 2010, and a subsequent movie of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey. The US House of Representatives has recognized her nonconsensual contribution to cancer research, and John Hopkins holds an annual lecture series on her impact on medicine.

The lawsuit claims that with this wide recognition, there is no way that Thermo Fisher Scientific can say it didn’t know the history behind its products containing HeLa cells and points to a page on the company’s website that acknowledges the cells were taken without Lacks’ consent. According to the lawsuit, there are at least 12 products marketed by Thermo Fisher that include the HeLa cell line.

“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 US research and medical systems,” the lawsuit says. “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.”

Thermo Fisher Scientific generates annual revenue of approximately $35 billion, according to its website. CNN has reached out to the company for comment.

Attorneys for the Lacks estate are requesting that the company give up “the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks” as well as reasonable costs and expenses, which they estimate to be $250 billion, according to the lawsuit and court docket.

In addition, they are asking the court to order Thermo Fisher Scientific to permanently stop the use of HeLa cells without the permission of the Lacks’ estate and to create a trust for the estate of all company intellectual property and proceeds related to the use of the cells.

While Thermo Fisher Scientific is at the center of this lawsuit, attorneys say that they are not the only corporation making a profit off her cells.

“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 on the case, said in a statement.

Johns Hopkins Medicine, in a statement to CNN, said that what happened to Lacks in 1951 “would not happen today.”

“At that time, our physician researchers routinely collected extra cell samples from cervical cancer patients during biopsies to be used for research purposes regardless of the race or socio-economic status of the patient,” the statement said. “In 1951, the U.S. health system did not yet have any established practices for informing or obtaining consent from patients when retrieving extra cell or tissue samples from procedures to use for research purposes.”

“While we cannot change the past, we at Johns Hopkins never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of the HeLa cells,” it said. “In addition, in 2013, Johns Hopkins worked with members of the Lacks family and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to help broker an agreement that requires scientists to receive permission to use Henrietta Lacks’ genetic blueprint, or to use HeLa cells in NIH funded research.”