Henrietta Lacks's estate sues biotech firm over 'stolen' immortal cancer cells

The estate of Henrietta Lacks sued a biotechnology 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 as part of "a racially unjust medical system."

Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. accused of selling woman's tissue without consent

In 1951, a doctor in Baltimore removed cancerous cells from Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge or consent. Those cells eventually helped lead to a multitude of medical treatments and formed the groundwork for the multibillion-dollar biotech industry. (Lacks Family/The Henrietta Lacks Foundation/The Associated Press)

The estate of Henrietta Lacks sued a biotechnology 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 as part of "a racially unjust medical system."

The estate's federal lawsuit says Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., of Waltham, Mass., knowingly mass produced and sold tissue that was taken from Lacks's by doctors at the hospital.

The HeLa cells taken from the woman's tumour before she died of cervical cancer became the first human cells to be successfully cloned and have been reproduced infinitely ever since. They have been used in countless scientific and medical innovations including the development of the polio vaccine and gene mapping.

Company knew where cells came from, lawsuit alleges

Lacks's cells were harvested and developed long before the advent of consent procedures used in medicine and scientific research today, but lawyers for the family say the company has continued to commercialize the results well after the origins of the HeLa cell line became well known.

"Thermo Fisher Scientific has known that HeLa cells were stolen from Ms. Lacks and chose to use her body for profit anyway," the lawsuit says.

This April 26, 2007, file photo shows the exterior of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., in Waltham, Mass. Lacks's estate is suing the pharmaceutical company. (Stephan Savoia/The Associated Press)

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 US in annual revenue. A company spokesperson reached didn't immediately comment on the lawsuit.

What makes the cells special

HeLa cells were discovered to have unique properties. While most cell samples died shortly after being removed from the body, Lacks's cells survived and thrived in laboratories. This exceptional quality made it possible to cultivate her cells indefinitely — they became known as the first immortalized human cell line — making it possible for scientists anywhere to reproduce studies using identical cells.

The remarkable science involved — and the impact on the Lacks family, some of whom suffered from chronic illnesses without health insurance — have been documented in a bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Oprah Winfrey portrayed her daughter in an HBO movie about the story. The lawsuit was filed exactly 70 years after the day she died, on Oct. 4, 1951.

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.

Attorney Ben Crump, centre, holds Zayden Joseph, 6, the great-grandson of 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 on Monday. (Steve Ruark/The Associated Press)

"The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history," the suit says. "Indeed, Black suffering has fuelled 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 Medicine says that after the 2010 publication of Rebecca Skloot's book, it reviewed its interactions with Lacks and her family over more than 50 years. It says it "has never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line," but it has acknowledged an ethical responsibility.

"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 Medicine says on its website.