Lacks’ cells were harvested and developed long before the advent of consent procedures used in medicine and scientific research today. Still, lawyers for her family say Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., of Waltham, Massachusetts, has continued to commercialize the results well after the origins of the HeLa cell line became well known.
“It is outrageous that this company would think that they have intellectual rights property to their grandmother’s cells. Why is it 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?” one of the family’s attorneys, Ben Crump, said Monday at a news conference outside the federal courthouse in Baltimore.
Johns Hopkins said it never sold or profited from the cell lines, but many companies have patented using them. Crump said these distributors have made billions from the genetic material “stolen” from Lacks’ body.
Another family attorney, Christopher Seeger, hinted at related claims against other companies. Thermo Fisher Scientific “shouldn’t feel too alone because they’re going to have a lot of company soon,” Seeger said. The lawsuit asks the court to order Thermo Fisher Scientific to “disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks.” It also wants Thermo Fisher Scientific to be permanently enjoined from using HeLa cells without the estate’s permission. On its website, the company says it generates approximately $35 billion in annual revenue. A company spokesman reached by telephone didn’t immediately comment on the lawsuit.
HeLa cells were discovered to have unique properties. While most cell samples died shortly after being removed from the body, her cells thrived in laboratories. This exceptional quality made it possible to cultivate her cells indefinitely — they became known as the first immortalized human cell line — making it possible for scientists anywhere to reproduce studies using identical cells. The remarkable science involved — and the impact on the Lacks family, some of whom suffered from chronic illnesses without health insurance — were documented in a 2010 bestselling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Oprah Winfrey portrayed her daughter in an HBO movie about the story.
The lawsuit was filed precisely 70 years after the day she died, on Oct. 4, 1951. The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history,” the suit says. “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.