Steve Ruark / AP
COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The Henrietta Lacks estate on Monday sued a biotech company, accusing it of selling cells that doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed from the black woman without her knowledge or consent as part of a “racially unjust medical system” in 1951 had .”
Tissue taken from the woman’s tumor before she died of cervical cancer was the first human cell to be successfully cloned. Since then, endlessly reproducing, HeLa cells have become a cornerstone of modern medicine, enabling myriad scientific and medical innovations, including the development of the polio vaccine, genetic mapping, and even the COVID-19 vaccines.
Lacks cells were harvested and developed long before consent procedures were introduced in medicine and scientific research today, but her family lawyers say Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. of Waltham, Mass., The results were known long after the origins of the HeLa cell line.
“It’s outrageous that this company thinks they have intellectual property in their grandmother’s cells. Why do they have intellectual rights in their cells and can make billions of dollars when their family, their flesh and blood, their black children, are born “Nothing?” One of the family’s lawyers, Ben Crump, said Monday at a press conference in federal court in Baltimore.
Johns Hopkins said it never sold or benefited from the cell lines, but many companies have patented methods of using them. Crump said these distributors made billions on the genetic material “stolen” from Lacks’ body.
Another family lawyer, Christopher Seeger, pointed out related claims against other companies.
Thermo Fisher Scientific “shouldn’t feel too alone because they’re going to have plenty of company soon,” said Seeger.
The lawsuit calls on the court to order Thermo Fisher Scientific to “siphon off the full amount of its net profits from commercializing the HeLa cell line to the estate of Henrietta Lacks.” In addition, Thermo Fisher Scientific is to be permanently banned from using HeLa cells without permission from the winery.
On its website, the company claims it has annual sales of around $ 35 billion. A company spokesman who was reached by phone did not immediately comment on the lawsuit.
It was discovered that HeLa cells have unique properties. While most cell samples died shortly after they were removed from the body, their cells survived and thrived in laboratories. This exceptional quality made it possible for their cells to be cultured indefinitely – they became known as the first immortalized human cell line – and enabled scientists to reproduce studies with identical cells anywhere.
The remarkable science involved – and the impact it had on the Lacks family, some of whom had chronic illnesses without health insurance – was documented in a 2010 bestselling book, The Immortal Lives of Henrietta Lacks. Oprah Winfrey portrayed her daughter in an HBO film about the story. The lawsuit was filed exactly 70 years after her death on October 4, 1951.
“The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the sadly common struggle that blacks have experienced throughout history,” the lawsuit said. “In fact, the suffering of blacks has fueled myriad medical advances and profits, without just compensation or recognition.
Shobita Parthasarathy, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan who has worked on intellectual property issues in biotechnology, said the lawsuit comes at a time when Lacks’ family likely had a sympathetic audience for their claims.
“We are in a moment not only after the George Floyd assassination but also after the pandemic where we have seen structural racism in action in all sorts of places,” she said. “We keep talking about race accounting, and this race accounting also takes place in science and medicine.
A group of white doctors at Johns Hopkins hunted black women with cervical cancer in the 1950s and cut tissue samples from their patients ‘cervices without their patients’ knowledge or consent, the lawsuit said.
Johns Hopkins Medicine says it reviewed its interactions with Lacks and her family for over 50 years after the publication of Rebecca Skloot’s book in 2010. It is said to have “never sold or benefited from the discovery or dissemination of HeLa cells, and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line,” but it has recognized an ethical responsibility.
Crump, a Florida-based civil rights attorney, rose to national prominence representing the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd – Black people whose deaths from police and vigilante groups helped revive a national movement toward police reform and racial justice.
Seeger, a New Jersey-based corporate litigation attorney, has represented thousands of former NFL players in a class concussion lawsuit and was a leading negotiator in Volkswagen’s $ 21 billion diesel emissions settlement with car owners.
According to the Thermo Fisher Scientific website, the company generates revenue from four business areas: life sciences, analytical instruments, specialty diagnostics, and laboratory products and services.
One of Henrietta Lacks’ grandsons, Lawrence Lacks Jr., said at the press conference Monday that the family were “united” behind the case.
“It is time,” said another grandson, Ron Lacks. “Seventy years later, we are mourning Henrietta Lacks and we will celebrate our regaining control of Henrietta Lacks’ legacy. This will not be passed on to another generation of Lackses.”