Thermo Fisher Scientific sued for using ‘HeLa’ cells without permission

Family of Henrietta Lacks file suit against biotech company

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, center, along with lawyer Christopher Seeger, right, and the family of Henrietta Lacks raise their fists as they call out her name after a news conference.

BALTIMORE – Family members of Henrietta Lacks filed a lawsuit Oct. 4 against the U.S. biotech giant Thermo Fisher Scientific for “unjust enrichment” after the company made and sold products relying on cells taken from the woman decades earlier without her consent.

The suit, filed at the U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Baltimore, follows years of consideration by family members about how to remedy the treatment of Lacks and Black people generally in medicine and the related financial windfall for pharmaceutical companies.

The family said in July it had hired prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump to explore lawsuits against as many as 100 defendants, mostly pharmaceutical companies, and possibly Johns Hopkins Hospital, where the socalled “HeLa” cells were taken.

“It is outrageous that this company would think that they have intellectual rights to [Lacks’] cells. Why would 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?” Crump said at a Monday news conference outside the U.S. District Court of Maryland along with co-counsels Christopher Seeger and Kim Parker.

“Black people have the right to control their bodies,” he said. “And yet Thermo Fisher Scientific treats Henrietta Lacks’ living cells as chattel to be bought and sold.”

Thermo Fisher Scientific, based in Waltham, Massachusetts, did not respond to a request for comment.

No consent or knowledge

A Johns Hopkins doctor took a sample of cervical cancer cells from Lacks, then a 31-year-old mother from Turners Station, without her knowledge or consent 70 years ago. She died shortly thereafter in 1951. The cells were the first to live outside the body and were reproduced inside a laboratory, leading to a host of medical advances in everything from vaccines and cosmetics to in vitro fertilization.

Monday marked 70 years to the day since Lacks’ death. Hers is the first known “immortalized” cell line in medicine, according to the complaint.

The case became well known after Rebecca Skloot wrote the bestselling book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which was later made into an HBO movie with Oprah Winfrey.

It is one of the best-known examples of medical mistreatment and experimentation in the history of health care, and one of several cases cited by the Black community as a root cause of systemic distrust and resentment of the health system.

Johns Hopkins officials contend that at the time there was no established practice for consent in such cases or regulation for their use. They also have said they never patented the cells and did not profit from them.

Hopkins officials have worked with some of Lacks family members to develop scholarships and other programs to honor the woman’s contributions to science. It’s also naming a building on the Hopkins medical campus in East Baltimore after her.

Seeger, a partner at the Seeger Weiss law firm, said it was unclear whether Hopkins would be listed as a defendant in the case or as a corroborating witness.

Conspiracy to harvest cells

The legal team representing the Lacks family alleges that Thermo Fisher Scientific chose to sell and mass produce the living tissue from Lacks despite knowing the woman had not consented. Crump called it part of a conspiracy to harvest tissue for research from Black women in racially segregated wards during the 1950s.

No “reasonable person” working with the “HeLa” cells could use them without knowing they were extracted without consent, according to the complaint. The attorneys allege that much of Thermo Fisher’s profits are owed to the “immortal” cells.

“This is a lawsuit not just for simple justice, this is a lawsuit not just for social justice, but this is also a lawsuit for genetic justice,” Crump said. “Her cells are the cornerstone of modern medicine. With this lawsuit we seek to make this the cornerstone of a new body of law called ‘genetic justice.’”

Several members of Lacks’ extended family united behind the attorneys on Monday, including four of her grandchildren and even one of her great-great grandchildren, 6-year-old Zayden Joseph. Some wore “Say her name: Henrietta Lacks” buttons on their clothes.

Crump lifted Joseph into his arms as a reminder that “genetic justice” would ensure that Joseph, his cousins and his future offspring would benefit from their ancestors’ unknowing sacrifice.

Grandson Ron Lacks, who published his family’s story in his book, “Henrietta Lacks: The Untold Story,” said the suit reframes his relatives’ narrative into one they can take pride in and own.

“We will celebrate taking back control of Henrietta Lacks’ legacy,” Lacks said. “We are going to take back, and take charge, of the Lacks family legacy.”

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