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Henrietta Lacks' family sues pharma company over use of her cells

“The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history,” the suit says.
Image: Henrietta Lacks
A photo of Henrietta Lacks, in the living room of her grandson, Ron Lacks, 57, in Baltimore in 2017. Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The estate of Henrietta Lacks sued a pharmaceutical company on Monday, accusing it of selling cells that doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took from the Black woman in 1951 without her knowledge or consent.

The cells taken from the woman who died of cervical cancer, known as HeLa cells, have been reproduced infinitely ever since, and used in countless scientific and medical innovations including the development of the polio vaccine and gene mapping.

The “HeLa cell line, became the first human cells successfully cloned and have since been used continually “for research that has touched nearly every realm of medicine,” lawyers for the estate said in a news release.

Henrietta Lacks in the 1940s.Lacks Family via The Henrietta Lacks Foundation / AP

Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., of Waltham, Massachusetts, knowingly mass produced and sold tissue that was taken from Lacks by doctors at the hospital and “a racially unjust medical system,” her estate’s federal lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit asks the court in Baltimore to order Thermo Fisher Scientific to “disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks.” It also seeks an order permanently enjoining Thermo Fisher Scientific from using the HeLa cell line without the estate’s permission.

On its website, the company says it generates approximately $35 billion in annual revenue. A company spokesman reached didn’t immediately comment on the lawsuit.

The remarkable science — and the impact on the Lacks family — have been documented in a bestselling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. Oprah Winfrey portrayed her daughter in an HBO movie about the story.

A group of white doctors at Johns Hopkins in the 1950s preyed on Black women with cervical cancer, cutting away tissue samples from their patients’ cervixes without their patients’ knowledge or consent, the lawsuit says.

“The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history,” the suit says. “Indeed, Black suffering has fueled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition. Various studies, both documented and undocumented, have thrived off the dehumanization of Black people.”

Among the lawyers for the family’s estate is Ben Crump, a Florida-based civil rights attorney. Crump rose to national prominence in recent years for representing the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd — Black people whose deaths at the hands of police and vigilantes helped revitalize a national movement toward police reform and racial justice.

Johns Hopkins says it reviewed its interactions with Lacks and her family over more than 50 years after the 2010 publication of Skloot’s book.

“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,” Johns Hopkins says on its website.

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