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Henrietta Lacks

The family of Henrietta Lacks at the unveiling of a statue on the 70th anniversary of her death at Royal Fort House in Bristol. The statue, created by Bristol artist Helen Wilson-Roe, is the first public sculpture of a black woman made by a black woman in the UK. Picture date: Monday, October 4, 2021. Henrietta Lacks' cancer cells changed the course of modern medicine after they were taken from her without consent or knowledge. The cells were the first living human cells to ever survive and multiply outside the body. (Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images)

Family of Henrietta Lacks Sues Over Stolen Cells That Made Biotech Firm Billions

"This isn't just about social justice," said a lawyer for the family. "This is about genetic justice."

Andrea Germanos

The family of Henrietta Lacks—a Black woman whose "immortal" cells were taken without her consent or knowledge 70 years ago—on Monday sued a pharmaceutical company over its "unjust enrichment" as a result of profits based on the stolen tissue that transformed modern medicine.

"This isn't just about social justice. This is about genetic justice,” Ben Crump, a lawyer for the Lacks family, said at a press conference.

The filing in the U.S. district court in Baltimore accuses Thermo Fisher Scientific of "making a conscious choice to sell and mass produce the living tissue of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, grandmother, and community leader, despite the corporation's knowledge that Ms. Lacks' tissue was taken from her without her consent by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a racially unjust medical system."

 "A human being—Henrietta  Lacks—is behind every cell, every sample sold by Thermo Fisher Scientific," the filing states.

The cells were taken from a biopsy when Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 for treatment for cervical cancer. Because of the cells' unique ability to live on and even reproduce in laboratory settings after 24 hours, hers "were the first known immortalized human cell line," which then became known as the HeLa cell line, as the lawsuit explains.

Nine months after that tissue was taken, Lacks died of cervical cancer at the age of 31. It wasn't until decades later that her family learned of the sample taken.

"The HeLa cell line is one of the most important and widely used cell lines in human history," the filing states, pointing to the cell line's role in innovations including the polio vaccine and in vitro fertilization.

The family estate's lawyers also said "Thermo Fisher Scientific has made staggering profits by using the HeLa cell line—all while Ms. Lacks Estate and family haven't seen a dime," pointing to 2020 alone when the company "recorded $32.22 billion in revenue."

While Henrietta Lacks' role in the cell line was obfuscated for years, thanks in part to a best-selling book and film based on it, "there is a widespread consensus today that the theft of Ms. Lacks’ cells was profoundly unethical and wrong," according to the lawsuit.


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