Attorneys representing the family of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells were cloned, mass produced, and widely used for research after being removed from a tumor on her cervix without her knowledge in 1951, have filed a lawsuit against one of the companies that commercialized the cell line. In the suit, filed today (October 4), they argue that pharmaceutical giant Thermo Fisher Scientific continued to derive commercial benefit from so-called HeLa cells, which have been used in tens of thousands of scientific and medical studies, long after their unethical origins became known.
The attorneys further request that Thermo Fisher compensate the family, and seek a court order obliging the company to obtain the Lacks family’s permission to use the cell line.
“Black people have the right to control their bodies,” civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing the family, says in a statement, The Baltimore Sun reports. “And yet Thermo Fisher Scientific treats Henrietta Lacks’ living cells as chattel to be bought and sold.”
HeLa cells are derived from tissue removed from Lacks in early 1951 by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she was undergoing treatment 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 go on to be used in around 70,000 scientific studies, including work that led to the polio vaccine and the isolation of HIV, according to the British Society for Immunology. It was the first time human cells had been successfully cultured long-term outside the body.
Back then, it was not required or common to seek consent for cell harvesting of this sort, according to the Associated Press; the origin of the cells didn’t become public until the 1970s. The story of Lacks, her family, and the cells was documented in a bestselling 2011 book by Rebecca Skloot and a subsequent movie starring Oprah Winfrey as Lacks’s daughter.
In 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) helped broker an agreement with the Lacks family about how genomic data from the cells should be shared, concluding that information would only be made available to scientists who intended to use the data for biomedical research purposes.
A few years later, several members of the Lacks family told newspapers they were planning to sue Johns Hopkins University over the collection and use of HeLa cells. “Everyone else is making funds off of Henrietta’s cells,” Lacks’s grandson, Ron Lacks, told the Sun in 2017. “I am sure my grandmother is up in heaven saying, ‘Well, what about my family?’”
Johns Hopkins has repeatedly said that it never profited from HeLa cells. A section of the university website now lays out the history of HeLa cells and the university’s role in obtaining them. “At several points across those decades, we found that Johns Hopkins could have—and should have—done more to inform and work with members of Henrietta Lacks’ family out of respect for them, their privacy and their personal interests,” the site reads.
A lawsuit against the university could still go ahead, the Sun reported this summer.
The amount of compensation sought from Thermo Fisher in the current lawsuit is unclear; the filing asks the court to make Thermo Fisher Scientific “disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks,” according to the AP.
“This lawsuit means a lot more to (Lacks’ family) than just a legal pleading,” Crump told reporters on Monday, according to USA Today. “It is the essence of who this Black family is.”
Both USA Today and the AP contacted Thermo Fisher for comment, but the company has yet to issue a response to the litigation.