Henrietta Lacks Estate Sues Company Using Her ‘Stolen’ Cells

By Michael Kunzelman, Associated Press

The estate is accusing a biotechnology firm of selling cells taken from her in 1951 without her knowledge or consent.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — 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.”

Tissue taken from the woman’s tumor before she died of cervical cancer became the first human cells to be successfully cloned. Reproduced infinitely ever since, HeLa cells have become a cornerstone of modern medicine, enabling countless scientific and medical innovations, including the development of the polio vaccine, genetic mapping and even COVID-19 vaccines.

Attorney Ben Crump, center, holds Zayden Joseph, 6, the great-grandson of Henrietta 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, Monday, Oct. 4, 2021. They announced during a news conference that Lacks’ estate is filing a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific for using Lacks’ cells, known as HeLa cells. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

Lacks’ cells were harvested and developed long before the advent of consent procedures used in medicine and scientific research today, but lawyers for her family say Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., of Waltham, Massachusetts, has continued to commercialize the results well after the origins of the HeLa cell line became well known.

Johns Hopkins said it never sold or profited from the cell lines, but many companies have patented ways of using them. Crump said these distributors have made billions from the genetic material “stolen” from Lacks’ body.

The remarkable science involved — and the impact on the Lacks family, some of whom suffered from chronic illnesses without health insurance — were documented in a 2010 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.

Read the full article here.

Learn more about the life of Henrietta Lacks and her impact on science here.

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