Henrietta Lacks estate sues company using her 'stolen' cells

Henrietta Lacks' estate sued a biotechnology firm on Monday. They claimed it sold cells that Johns Hopkins Hospital doctors took from a Black woman in 1951, without her consent or knowledge.

Henrietta Lacks estate sues company using her 'stolen' cells

The first successful cloning of human cells was achieved using tissue taken from the woman's cervical cancer tumor. HeLa cells, which have been reproduced infinitely since then, have been a foundation of modern medicine. They allowed for many scientific and medical innovations such as the development of the polio vaccine and genetic mapping, and even COVID-19 vaccinations.

Although Lacks' cells were developed and harvested long before consent procedures existed in medical research, lawyers for her family claim that Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. of Waltham, Massachusetts has continued to market the results long after the HeLa cell line was discovered.

It is absurd that this company thinks they have intellectual property rights to their grandmother's cells. "Why is it that they have intellectual rights to her cell and can benefit billions when her family, her flesh, and blood, and her Black children get nothing?" Ben Crump, one of the family's lawyers, stated Monday at a press conference outside of Baltimore's federal courthouse.

Johns Hopkins claimed it never sold or profited off the cell lines. However, many companies have patents for their use. Crump stated that these distributors have made billions of dollars from genetic material "stolen from Lacks' body."

Christopher Seeger, another family attorney, suggested that there might be similar claims against other companies.

Seeger stated that Thermo Fisher Scientific should not feel alone as they will soon have a lot more company.

The suit asks for Thermo Fisher Scientific's to "disgorge all its net profits from commercializing the HeLa line to the Estate Of Henrietta Lacks." It also demands that Thermo Fisher Scientific be permanently prohibited from using HeLa cells in any way without permission from the estate.

According to its website, the company claims it generates around $35 billion annually in revenue. The lawsuit was not addressed by a company spokesperson who could be reached by telephone.

HeLa cells have been discovered to possess unique properties. Most cell samples from HeLa died within a few hours of being taken out of the body. However, her cells survived and thrived inside laboratories. Because of this exceptional quality, it was possible to grow her cells indefinitely. They were known as the first immortalized human cells line. This allows scientists to replicate studies with identical cells from anywhere.

The amazing science involved and the impact it had on the Lacks family (some of whom suffered from chronic diseases without insurance) were detailed in "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," a 2010 bestseller. Oprah Winfrey played her daughter in an HBO movie. On Oct. 4, 1951, exactly 70 years after her death, the lawsuit was filed.

According to the suit, "The exploiting of Henrietta Lacks is a sad example of the common struggle that Black people have faced throughout history." "Indeed Black suffering has fuelled innumerable medical advances and profit, with no compensation or recognition. Numerous studies, both documented as well as undocumented have benefited from the dehumanization and marginalization of Black people.

Shobita Parthasarathy is a University of Michigan professor of policy who has studied issues surrounding intellectual property in biotechnology. She said that the lawsuit came at a time when Lacks’ family will likely have a sympathetic audience to support their claims.

She said, "We are at an moment, not only after George Floyd's murder, but also the pandemic," where structural racism is being seen in all kinds of places. "We talk about a race reckoning. That racial reckoning is also happening in science, medicine."

According to the lawsuit, a group of white Johns Hopkins doctors in the 1950s preyed upon Black women with cervical carcinoma, removing tissue from their patients' cervixes, without their consent or knowledge.

Johns Hopkins Medicine claims it has reviewed its interactions over 50 years with Lacks and her families since Rebecca Skloot's 2010 book. Although it claims it "has not sold or profited from HeLa cell distribution or discovery and has not owned the HeLa cell rights," it acknowledges an ethical responsibility.

Crump, a Florida-based civil right attorney, rose to national prominence representing the families Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd -- Black men whose deaths at hands of vigilantes and police helped revive a national movement for police reform and racial injustice.

Seeger is a New Jersey-based corporate lawyer who represented thousands of ex-NFL players in a concussion settlement. He was also a key negotiator for Volkswagen's $21B diesel emissions settlement with car owner.

According to Thermo Fisher Scientific's website, the company generates revenue through four business segments: life sciences and analytical instruments, specialty diagnostics and laboratory products and service.

Lawrence Lacks Jr., one of Henrietta Lacks’ grandsons, stated Monday at Monday's news conference, that the family is "united behind the case."

Ron Lacks, another grandson, said that "it's about the time." "Seventy-years later, we mourn Henrietta Lacks and we will celebrate regaining control over Henrietta Lacks’ legacy. This will not be passed to the next generation of Lackses."

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