The family of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman whose cells were collected from her body in 1951 and used for medical research without her consent, demand justice for their relative.
On October 4, the 70th anniversary of her death, Henrietta Lacks’ family filed a federal lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific alleging unwarranted enrichment and non-consensual use of her cells and tissue samples.
The Lacks family has retained Benjamin Crump as their lead attorney. Crump, who previously represented the families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, says he believes this case can bring justice to the family.
“This whole idea of her cells is even sold to this day as chattel, while everyone benefits from it except her own family. Her own flesh and blood. It reminds of the days of slavery when they sold black people as chattel and we never benefited from our labor, our contributions,” said Crump.
In 1951, at age 31, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer and began treatment at one of the few facilities willing to treat African Americans, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. During her treatment, a gynecologist biopsied her and sent her tissue to a lab for testing, without her or her family’s consent.
In subsequent experiments with her tissue sample, scientists found that Henrietta’s cells reproduced and thrived outside her body — a discovery that helped shape medical innovations.
Those cells were named “HeLa” after Henrietta Lacks. HeLa cells have led to several medical breakthroughs, including the polio vaccine, coronavirus vaccines, cancer treatments, AIDS treatments, gravity in space and more.
What Henrietta Lacks went through is now illegal, and federal law requires researchers to obtain approval before using a patient’s tissue sample for research.
The family members say they have made no profit from the research and use of Lacks’ cells. They say they believe now is the time to be compensated and they are aware that they will have to fight up to 100 defendants, the first of which is Thermo Fisher.
Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., based in Massachusetts, sells HeLa cells on its website.
“Thermo Fisher Scientific’s business is commercializing Henrietta Lacks’ cells – her living body tissue – without the consent of or providing compensation to Ms. Lacks,” the lawsuit said. “All the while, Thermo Fisher Scientific understands – indeed, acknowledges on its own website – that this genetic material [is] stolen from Mrs. Lacks.’
The lawsuit also asks the court to order Thermo Fisher Scientific “the full amount of its net profit obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to Henrietta Lacks’ estate.”
Christopher Seeger, another lawyer for the Lacks family, said other companies will also be targeted for commercializing Lacks’ cells.
Thermo Fisher Scientific, he said, “shouldn’t feel too alone because they’ll have a lot of company soon.”
Lack’s story began about ten years ago with the publication of the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
Her story gained more national attention with the release of the movie “The Life of Henrietta Lacks”. Oprah Winfrey played Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, and Renee Elise Goldsberry played Henrietta.
Ron Lacks says his mother was the first in the family to discover that cells she received from her late mother-in-law Henrietta Lacks were still viable in 1973.
Ron Lacks is the executor of the estate and Henrietta’s oldest grandson. For years he was inspired by his mother’s resilience to keep Henrietta’s name alive and he uses this inspiration to fight for his grandmother’s property.
“Every time I walk into my mom’s room she empowers me because I know I’m doing it for her. She started this in 1973. She started this, so when I walk into her room and feed her, change her, I know I’m doing this for her.” Ron Lack told ABC News. “When you fight for your family, you run off with all your weapons, you don’t stop until you succeed or they take me down,” he added.
Johns Hopkins University states on its website that it “has never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells” and that the university does not own the rights to the HeLa cells.
The university also claims it helped the Lacks family negotiate an agreement that would require scientists to get permission to use Henrietta Lacks’ genetic blueprint.