Saturday, August 13, 2022

Pharma Company Sued by Henrietta Lacks’ Estate for Using Her Cells Without Family’s Consent

*Civil rights attorney Ben Crump announced that the estate of Henrietta Lacks has filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc. for profiting from Lacks unique cells. 

The lawsuit was filed on the 70th anniversary of her death from cervical cancer.

A press release from the office of Ben Crump Law notes that Thermo Fisher Scientific made a conscious choice to sell and mass-produce the living tissue of Henrietta Lacks, despite the corporation’s knowledge that Lacks’ tissue had been taken from her without her consent by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The taking is considered part of a conspiracy to harvest tissue for research from Black women without their knowledge or consent in racially segregated wards throughout the 1950s.

Lacks died at the age of 31 from an aggressive case of cervical cancer. Before her death 70 years ago, doctors from Johns Hopkins Hospital took samples of her cancerous cells and gave them to researchers without her or her family members’ knowledge or consent.

READ MORE: Attorney Ben Crump Retained by Family of the ‘Immortal’ Henrietta Lacks

Lacks’ cells – now commonly known as HeLa – were discovered to have an amazing property not seen before: they could be grown continuously in laboratory conditions. Lacks’ immortal cells went on to be the first human cells to be successfully cloned and have since been used continually for research into vaccines, cancer treatments, AIDS treatments, in vitro fertilization, and many other groundbreaking advances in medicine that generously line the pockets of pharmaceutical companies and executives.

Her cells became the first human cells successfully cloned and have since been used continually for research that has touched nearly every realm of medicine. 

The suit alleges that Thermo Fisher sells multiple products containing the HeLa cell line to buyers across the globe. As stated in the lawsuit complaint: “In the last several years, Thermo Fisher Scientific has made staggering profits in the tens of millions of dollars by using the HeLa cell line – all while Ms. Lacks’ Estate and family haven’t seen a dime of it.”

According to the complaint, per the release, Thermo Fisher seeks intellectual property rights to these products, staking a claim to Lacks’ genetic material for its own pecuniary gain – even though the company “has known that HeLa cells were stolen from Ms. Lacks.”

“Thermo Fisher Scientific’s choice to continue selling HeLa cells in spite of the cell lines’ origin and the concrete harms it inflicts on the Lacks family can only be understood as a choice to embrace a legacy of racial injustice embedded in the U.S. research and medical systems,” Crump said. “Black people have the right to control their bodies. And yet Thermo Fisher Scientific treats Henrietta Lacks’ living cells as chattel to be bought and sold.”

The lawsuit charges Thermo Fisher Scientific with a single cause of action – unjust enrichment – for its choice to profit from the unlawful conduct of Johns Hopkins’ doctors, making the company liable for its profits as a “conscious wrongdoer” under settled law.

“Thermo Fisher Scientific is one of several corporations that made a conscious choice to profit from the assault of Henrietta Lacks,” said co-counsel Chris Seeger. “Recoupment of their ill-gotten gains, which rightfully belong to Ms. Lack’s estate, is just the first step toward obtaining justice for Ms. Lacks’ and her descendants.”

Seeger hinted that other biotech companies could be subjected to a similar lawsuit in the future. 

Ny MaGee
Ny MaGee is an entertainment reporter with over 15 years of experience working in the film industry in areas including production and post-production, marketing, distribution, and acquisitions. She has worked for legendary film producer Roger Corman, Quentin Tarantino's production team at Miramax, the late Larry Flynt, MTV/ VH1, Hallmark Channel, Paramount, Jim Henson Co., Parade Magazine, and various LA-based companies representing above-the-line talent.




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