Attorneys, who represent the family of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman whose cells were cloned, mass-produced, and widely used for research after being unknowingly removed from a tumor on her cervix in 1951, have a lawsuit against one of the Companies submitted that marketed the cell line. In the lawsuit filed today (Oct. 4), they argue that pharmaceutical giant Thermo Fisher Scientific was known to have commercialized HeLa cells, which have been used in tens of thousands of scientific and medical studies, long after their unethical origins.
The attorneys are also demanding that Thermo Fisher compensate the family and obtain an injunction requiring the company to seek permission from the Lacks family to use the cell line.
“Black people have the right to control their bodies,” says civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents the family. The Baltimore sun reported. “And yet Thermo Fisher Scientific treats Henrietta Lacks’ living cells as goods for sale and purchase.”
HeLa cells are obtained from tissue taken from Lacks in early 1951 by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she was being treated for cervical cancer. Lacks died later that year, but the cells survived surprisingly well in vitro, and scientists used them to develop a cell line that would be used in about 70,000 scientific studies, including work on the polio vaccine and the isolation of HIV led, according to the British Society for Immunology. It was the first time that human cells were successfully cultivated outside the body for a long time.
At that time, according to the Associated Press, it was not necessary or customary to obtain consent for such a cell harvest; the origin of the cells was not known until the 1970s. The story of Lacks, her family, and the cells was documented in a 2011 bestselling book by Rebecca Skloot and a subsequent film starring Oprah Winfrey as Lacks’ daughter.
In 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) helped broker an agreement with the Lacks family on how genomic data should be shared from cells, and concluded that information would only be made available to scientists who understand the Wanted to use data for biomedical research purposes.
Several years later, several members of the Lacks family told the newspapers that they were going to sue Johns Hopkins University for the collection and use of HeLa cells. “Everyone else makes money from Henrietta’s cells,” Lacks’ grandson Ron Lacks told the Sun in 2017. “I’m sure my grandmother is in heaven and says, ‘Well what about my family?'”
Johns Hopkins has repeatedly said that it never benefited from HeLa cells. A section of the university website now shows the history of the HeLa cells and the university’s role in maintaining them. “At several points over these decades we have found that, out of respect for them, their privacy and their personal interests, Johns Hopkins could have done more to inform and work with the members of the Henrietta Lacks family,” reads the Website.
A lawsuit against the university could still be brought Sun reported this summer.
The amount of compensation sought by Thermo Fisher in the current lawsuit is unclear; The file calls on the court to get Thermo Fisher Scientific to “distribute the full amount of its net profits made from commercializing the HeLa cell line to the estate of Henrietta Lacks,” according to the AP.
“This lawsuit means (Lacks’ family) much more than just a legal plea,” Crump told reporters on Monday USA today. “It’s the essence of who this black family is.”
Both USA today and the AP contacted Thermo Fisher for comment, but the company has not yet released a response to the litigation.