Henrietta Lacks’ Estate Sues Scientific Company Over Misuse of Her Cells

In Summary

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump is representing the family of Henrietta Lacks in a lawsuit that accuses Thermo Fisher Scientific of selling and mass producing her cells, even after knowing they were taken without her consent. 

It’s been 70 years since doctors illegally stole the living tissue of Henrietta Lacks (HeLa) for their own personal gain, and her estate has retained civil rights attorney Ben Crump in a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific. 

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According to the lawsuit, Thermo Fisher made a deliberate decision to sell and mass produce Lacks’ living tissue, despite being aware that it had been taken from her without her consent by doctors at John Hopkins Hospital. 

They’re accused of selling a variety of goods using the HeLa cell line to buyers nationwide, generating profits in the “tens of millions of dollars” and failing to compensate Ms. Lacks’ estate or family. The lawsuit says the corporation is guilty of unjust enrichment for profiting from John Hopkins’ doctors’ illegal behavior, making them liable for its profit as a “conscious wrongdoer.” 

“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 U.S. research and medical systems,” Crump said in a statement before a news conference, along with co-counsels Christopher Seeger and Kim Parker. “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.” 

HeLa was discovered during the treatment of Lacks’ cancer by Johns Hopkins researcher Dr. George Gey in 1951 and is one of the most significant scientific findings of the twentieth century, per John Hopkins. Most cells died shortly after being removed from the body, but HeLa cells were able to divide again and again, forming the first immortal human cell line. 

It’s since been credited for a number of medical advances, including the effects of zero gravity in space, the invention of the polio vaccine and the study of leukemia, the AIDS virus and cancer research around the world. 

“The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history,” the suit states, per The Associated Press. “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.” 

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During the 1950s, a conspiracy was suspected of harvesting tissue from Black women in racially segregated wards without their knowledge or agreement for scientific purposes, per Crump’s media alert. 

Johns Hopkins continues to make clear they never profited and freely distributed HeLa cells for scientific research, but have acknowledged an ethical responsibility, per AP.

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