The family of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells were taken from her without her consent in the 1950s and have led to scores of medical breakthroughs, is suing a pharmaceutical company profiting off her cell line, civil rights attorney Ben Crump announced Monday.
Known as HeLa cells, the cells from Lack’s body led to advancements in a wide range of medical fields, including vaccine development, cancer treatments and AIDS research. But Lacks never consented to having the tissue removed when she was being treated for cancer in a segregated hospital ward in Maryland months before her death.
Crump, who began representing Lacks’ family’s estate this year, said Thermo Fisher Scientific, a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical corporation, has knowingly sold products containing Lacks’ cell line in what amounts to “medical racism.”
“This lawsuit means a lot more to (Lacks’ family) than just a legal pleading. It is the essence of who this Black family is,” Crump said Monday at a news conference alongside Lacks’ grandchildren in Baltimore.
The lawsuit alleges the company was unjustly enriched by profiting off the cells. A spokesperson for Thermo Fisher Scientific did not immediately respond to USA TODAY’s request for comment.
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Lacks, 31, was being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 for cervical cancer when, during a procedure, Dr. George Gey collected a sample of tissue on a tumor in her body without her prior knowledge.
Unlike other cells with which Gey had worked, Lacks’ continued to divide and were viable outside her body in test tubes. That allowed researchers to perform tests on them and for the cell line to be shared widely.
The procedure left Lacks infertile, Crump said. She died later that year, and her family was unaware her cells had been taken and used for research until decades later.
Crump described the pain Lacks suffered in the last months of her life as a result of the procedure. While Lacks, he said, was experimented upon, her experiences were similar to many other Black people who have been mistreated in the medical system throughout history.
Lacks’ cells have become the cornerstone of modern medicine and enabled many pharmaceutical companies to profit, but her family has seen no financial benefit, Crump said.
At least two Nobel prizes have been awarded for research aided by HeLa cells, and the cells have been involved in about 70,000 published studies, according to the British Society for Immunology. Among the major accomplishments made possible by Lacks’ cells are the development of the polio vaccine and the ability to isolate the human immunodeficiency virus, which can lead to AIDS.
Crump says Thermo Fisher Scientific has also sought intellectual property rights to products that use Lacks’ cells despite the company knowing Lacks did not consent to the cells being taken.
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Lacks’ story garnered national attention in the 2010 bestseller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” HBO made a movie based on the book in 2017, which starred Oprah Winfrey.
Renewed attention to Lacks’ story also comes amid global effort to decrease disparities in COVID-19 vaccination rates. Since the start of the vaccine rollout, U.S. public health officials have made efforts to address vaccine hesitancy in some Black communities caused by decadeslong mistrust of and abuse in medical institutions.
Crump criticized Hopkins’ treatment of Lacks at the time, saying Lacks and other Black women were “used as lab rats.”
The hospital did not immediately respond to USA TODAY’s request for comment. Hopkins says on its website the removal of patients’ tissue without their consent during a procedure was routine at the time and there was no established practice for receiving consent. It never owned the rights to nor profited from Lacks’ cell line, the hospital also says.
The Lacks family hired Crump in July to investigate potential defendants for a lawsuit, including major pharmaceutical companies. Crump has represented many families of Black Americans killed by police officers, including Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The Baltimore Sun reported at the time the lawyer hadn’t ruled out a suit against Hopkins.
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Chris Seeger, a prominent attorney working with Crump on the case, said Thermo Fisher Scientific may be the only company thus far that is facing legal action from the family, but “they shouldn’t feel too alone. They’re going to have a lot of company pretty soon.”
Ron Lacks, one of Henrietta Lacks’ grandsons, said his family’s past claims seeking justice for his grandmother have often gone unheard, but he felt confident in the lawyers working on the current case.
“It’s about time. Here, 70 years later, we mourn Henrietta Lacks and we will celebrate taking back control of Henrietta Lacks’ legacy,” Ron Lacks said Monday, which marked the 70th anniversary of her death.