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Henrietta Lacks’s Estate Sues, Says Company Used Cells Without Consent

photo of gene therapy

Oct. 5, 2021 -- The family of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells have been used for scientific research for decades, filed a lawsuit on Monday against Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. for profiting from the nonconsensual use of her cells.

Lacks, a Black woman who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951, had tissue taken from her cervix without her consent during a procedure at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Lacks died later that year from cancer at age 31.

Doctors used the sample to create the first human cell line to reproduce outside of the body, which has been used much since then. The line, known as HeLa, has given scientists the ability to create groundbreaking developments such as the polio vaccine, in-vitro fertilization, and gene mapping, CNN reported. HeLa cells have also improved research on cancer and AIDS.

The lawsuit states that Thermo Fisher Scientific profits from the “unlawful conduct” of the Johns Hopkins doctors at the time and that its “ill-gotten gains rightfully belong to Ms. Lacks’ Estate.”

The case 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.”

Lacks’s story became widely known after a best-selling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, uncovered the origin of HeLa cells. The book was published in 2010, and a film based on it starring Oprah Winfrey came out in 2017.

The U.S. House of Representatives has recognized Lacks and her nonconsensual contribution to cancer research, CNN reported, while Johns Hopkins holds an annual lecture in her honor.

The family’s lawsuit states that Thermo Fisher Scientific markets at least 12 products that include the HeLa cell line, and it wants the company to give up “the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line.” The suit is also asking a court to order the company to stop using the cells without permission and to create a trust for the Lacks estate.

“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 states. “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.”

A spokesperson for Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. did not immediately return WebMD’s request for comment on the lawsuit.

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Sources

CNN: “Estate of Henrietta Lacks sues biotechnical company for nonconsensual use of her cells.”

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