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Henrietta Lacks' estate sues Thermo Fisher over HeLa cell profits

18 October 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1117

The family of Henrietta Lacks is suing biotechnology company Thermo Fisher for profiting from cells taken without her consent.

Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old African-American woman died from cervical cancer in 1951. Cells taken from her tumour were used to create an immortal cell line, known as HeLa cells, in the first human cells to be grown successfully outside the human body. The cell line was used in research to develop new cancer treatments and the polio vaccine. 

However, neither Lacks nor any family members provided consent for her cells to be used in this manner, and the family claim that she did not consent to the tissue being removed at all. The suit alleges that the cells were taken while Lacks was under general anaesthetic receiving radium treatment, and that a biopsy was not required, nor consented to. 

The lawsuit complaint states: 'In the last several years Thermo Fisher Scientific has made staggering profits in 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... Put simply, because it made the conscious choice to profit from the assault of Henrietta Lacks, Thermo Fisher Scientific's ill-gotten gains rightfully belong to Ms Lacks' estate.'

The Lacks family are being represented in the case by Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer who also represented the family of George Floyd.

'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 US research and medical systems' he said

Johns Hopkins University, where Lacks was being treated at the time her cells were taken, acknowledge that obtaining the cells was a lapse in ethical standards, and admitted that they 'could have – and should have – done more to inform and work with members of Henrietta Lacks' family out of respect for them, their privacy and their personal interests'. However, they asserted that 'there was no established practice for informing or obtaining consent from cell or tissue donors' at the time'. They also denied targeting black patients, saying 'It was common practice at Johns Hopkins to collect tissue samples from cervical cancer patients, regardless of race or socio-economic status.

Lacks was awarded a WHO Director-General's award on 13 October 2021, by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who said: 'In honouring Henrietta Lacks, WHO acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices, and advancing racial equity in health and science. It's also an opportunity to recognise women - particularly women of colour - who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.'

9 August 2021 - by Semyon Bodian 
The family of Henrietta Lacks is preparing a lawsuit against a number of pharmaceutical companies for profiting from cancerous cells taken without her or her family's consent...
3 February 2014 - by Simon Hazelwood-Smith 
This was a play about death; how people cope with it, how they grieve and how they remember. It was also a play about love and relationships, finding inspiration in unexpected places and also about science, genetics and the story of Henrietta Lacks' cells...
12 August 2013 - by Simon Hazelwood-Smith 
An agreement between the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the family of Henrietta Lacks will give the family some say in how genetic data from the cell line is used....
17 January 2011 - by Rose Palmer 
This is an extraordinary book about a woman who died on 4 October 1951, but whose legacy will continue exponentially. Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer who died, aged only 31, in the 'coloured ward' of John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore....
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