Henrietta Lacks (Via Johns Hopkins Medicine)

Es­tate of Hen­ri­et­ta Lacks sues Ther­mo Fish­er over the im­prop­er sale of her im­mor­tal cells

The fam­i­ly of a black woman whose im­mor­tal cells were un­eth­i­cal­ly tak­en from her at Johns Hop­kins hos­pi­tal in 1951 is now su­ing Ther­mo Fish­er Sci­en­tif­ic for prof­it­ing from the cells for decades.

The world-fa­mous cell line, known for Hen­ri­et­ta Lacks as HeLa and the sub­ject of a best­selling book about a decade ago, have proven to be in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant in hu­man his­to­ry, help­ing sci­en­tists to make ma­jor strides, from the po­lio vac­cine to in vit­ro fer­til­iza­tion.

But the fam­i­ly be­hind the cell line is tak­ing par­tic­u­lar is­sue with the prof­its Ther­mo Fish­er has made thanks to their an­ces­tor’s ge­net­ic ma­te­r­i­al.

At­tor­ney Ben Crump, cen­ter, holds Za­y­den Joseph, 6, the great-grand­son of Hen­ri­et­ta Lacks, while stand­ing with at­tor­neys and oth­er de­scen­dants of Lacks, whose cells have been used in med­ical re­search with­out her per­mis­sion, out­side the fed­er­al cour­t­house in Bal­ti­more, Mon­day, Oct. 4, 2021. They an­nounced dur­ing a news con­fer­ence that Lacks’ es­tate is fil­ing a law­suit against Ther­mo Fish­er Sci­en­tif­ic for us­ing Lacks’ cells, known as HeLa cells. (AP Pho­to/Steve Ru­ark)

Click on the im­age to see the full-sized ver­sion

“Ther­mo Fish­er Sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­al­ly sells Ms. Lacks’ cel­lu­lar ma­te­r­i­al, de­vel­ops and man­u­fac­tures cel­lu­lar prod­ucts in­cor­po­rat­ing HeLa cells, and seeks in­tel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty rights on these prod­ucts, stak­ing a claim to the ge­net­ic ma­te­r­i­al of Ms. Lacks,” the suit filed in Mary­land dis­trict court on Mon­day says. “Ther­mo Fish­er Sci­en­tif­ic has ap­pro­pri­at­ed Ms. Lacks’ ge­net­ic ma­te­r­i­al for its own pe­cu­niary gain, all with­out pay­ment, per­mis­sion, or ap­proval from the Lacks Es­tate or fam­i­ly.”

While Johns Hop­kins has main­tained that it nev­er prof­it­ed from the cell line, the fam­i­ly has pre­vi­ous­ly sought pay­ment from the uni­ver­si­ty for use of the line. The es­tate’s suit against Ther­mo al­so notes the com­pa­ny’s in­tent “to prof­it from the un­law­ful con­duct” of the Johns Hop­kins doc­tors.

Erin O’Shea

“Ther­mo Fish­er Sci­en­tif­ic’s choice to con­tin­ue sell­ing HeLa cells in spite of the cell lines’ ori­gin and the con­crete harms it in­flicts on the Lacks fam­i­ly can on­ly be un­der­stood as a choice to em­brace a lega­cy of racial in­jus­tice em­bed­ded in the US re­search and med­ical sys­tems. Black peo­ple have the right to con­trol their bod­ies. And yet Ther­mo Fish­er Sci­en­tif­ic treats Hen­ri­et­ta Lacks’ liv­ing cells as chat­tel to be bought and sold,” the suit says.

The suit comes as the Howard Hugh­es Med­ical In­sti­tute in Mary­land gave the Hen­ri­et­ta Lacks Foun­da­tion a six-fig­ure gift in 2020, with HH­MI pres­i­dent Erin O’Shea ac­knowl­edg­ing “that we have a long way to go be­fore sci­ence and med­i­cine are re­al­ly eq­ui­table.”

At a press con­fer­ence in Bal­ti­more on Mon­day, one of the fam­i­ly’s lawyers al­so said re­lat­ed claims may be filed against oth­er com­pa­nies prof­it­ing from the HeLa line, ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­at­ed Press.

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