Estate of Henrietta Lacks sues pharmaceutical company, claims it profited from stolen cells

A mural by Henrietta Lacks. Photo: Brian Crawford/Flickr CC BY SA 2.0


  • Tissue taken without consent from Henrietta Lacks’ tumor was the first human cells to be successfully cloned and played a crucial role in several scientific breakthroughs.
  • The lawsuit says the Lacks estate has not “seen a dime” of the revenue pharmaceutical company Thermo Fisher Scientific has made from cultivating the HeLa cell line.
  • He accuses the company of making a “conscious choice” to mass produce the cells and taking advantage of a “racially unfair medical system”.

New Delhi: The estate of Henrietta Lacks, a black American woman whose brain cells were taken from her decades ago without her permission, sued a pharmaceutical company on Monday, October 4, saying she made a “conscious choice” to mass-produce the cells and take advantage of a “racially unjust medical system.”

Tissue taken from Lacks’ tumor before his death from cervical cancer was the first human cells to be successfully cloned and has been replicated ever since. The “HeLa” cell line is a “cornerstone of modern medicine, enabling countless scientific and medical innovations, including polio vaccine development, genetic mapping, and even COVID-19 vaccines,” according to NPR. .

Henrietta Lacks’ estate hasn’t ‘seen a dime’ of the revenue the pharmaceutical company, Thermo Fisher Scientific, made from cultivating the HeLa cell line that was taken from Lacks at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 , according to the lawsuit filed in a federal court in Maryland.

According to NPR, HeLa cells had unique properties: “While most cell samples died soon after being removed from the body, his cells survived and thrived in labs.” This allowed scientists to grow his cells indefinitely, and scientists anywhere can replicate studies using identical cells.

Division of HeLa cells in culture. Cells can be seen in metaphase and telophase, different stages of cell division. Photo: Josef Reischig/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

“The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the sadly common struggle experienced by black people throughout United States history. Indeed, black suffering has fueled countless medical advances and profits, without just compensation or recognition,” the lawsuit states.

Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney who has also represented the families of African American men killed at the hands of police like George Floyd, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, is representing the Lacks estate.

Lacks’ story was relatively unknown until it was chronicled in the bestselling 2010 book and 2017 film, both titled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

The tissue sample for the HeLa cell line was taken from Lacks at Johns Hopkins during a procedure to treat her cervical cancer, which left her infertile, according to the lawsuit.

Lacks, who was not informed that Johns Hopkins planned to take the samples and did not consent to it, died of cancer later that year.

While Lacks cells were harvested and grown before the consent procedures used in medicine and scientific research existed today, family attorneys say Thermo Fisher Scientific continued to “market the results well after the origins of the HeLa cell line became well known”.

The lawsuit asks the court to attribute to the Lacks estate the profits from Thermo Fisher’s use of the HeLa line and permanently bar it from using the line without permission. “Simply put, because it made a conscious choice to profit from Henrietta Lacks’ assault, Thermo Fisher Scientific’s ill-gotten gains rightfully belong to Mrs. Lacks’ estate,” the lawsuit states.

The family can also sue other companies. According to NPR, another family attorney, Christopher Seeger, said Thermo Fisher Scientific “shouldn’t feel too lonely because they’re going to have lots of company soon.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine, the hospital where the cells were taken from in Lacks, states on its website that it “has never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line”.

Seeger, the family’s attorney, said the estate could sue Johns Hopkins if the hospital doesn’t help plaintiffs in the Thermo Fisher litigation, according to the boston globe. “Their behavior will very quickly decide whether they will be defendants in this case or witnesses,” Seeger said.

Seeger negotiated a landmark $4.85 billion settlement with drugmaker Merck in 2007 for heart attacks and strokes linked to the arthritis pill Vioxx. He was the lead negotiator for Volkswagen’s $21 billion diesel emissions settlement with car owners.

Reuben Guttman, a plaintiffs attorney who has represented whistleblowers in lawsuits against drug companies, told the boston globe that the Lacks Estate lawsuit faces several legal hurdles. Since Maryland has a three-year statute of limitations for filing unjust enrichment claims, Thermo Fisher could seek a dismissal of the lawsuit, as Lacks’ family has known for much longer that the company was selling products using HeLa cells.

Guttman, however, told the newspaper that Thermo Fisher shouldn’t take the “very, very cold approach” of trying to have the lawsuit dismissed on legal grounds and should negotiate a settlement with the Lacks family.

(With entries from Reuters)

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