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)
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“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.
“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.