The family of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cells were collected from her body and used for medical research without her consent in 1951, are seeking justice for their relative.
On Oct. 4, the 70th anniversary of her death, Henrietta Lacks ’family filed a federal lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific claiming unfair enrichment and non-use of cells and tissue samples.
The Lacks family retains Benjamin Crump as their primary attorney. Crump, a former representative of the families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, said he believes the case could bring justice to the family.
“The whole conception of his cells is being sold even to this day as a chattel property when everyone benefits from it but his own family. His own flesh and blood. It remembers the days of being slaves when they sold black people as chattel property and we never got benefits from our labor, our contributions, ”Crump said.
In 1951, at the age of 31, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer and began treatment at one of the only facilities willing to treat Americans, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. During her treatment, a gynecologist performed a biopsy on her and sent her tissue to a lab for research, without her or her family’s permission.
In subsequent experiments on her tissue sample, scientists discovered that Henrietta’s cells had reproduced and evolved outside her body – a discovery that helped shape medical innovations.
Those cells were named, “HeLa” after Henrietta Lacks. HeLa cells have led to many medical breakthroughs including polio vaccines, coronavirus vaccines, cancer treatment, AIDS treatment, zero gravity in space, and more.
What Henrietta Lacks experienced is now illegal and researchers are required to obtain permission before using a patient’s tissue sample for research. according to federal law.
Family members said they did not receive any income from researching and using Lacks ’cells. They said they believe it is time now to get paid and they know they will fight up to 100 defendants, the first being Thermo Fisher.
Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., based in Massachusetts, sells HeLa cells on its website.
“Thermo Fisher Scientific’s business was to commercialize Henrietta Lacks’ cells – her living body tissue – without permission or providing compensation to Ms. Lacks ”the lawsuit states. “At all times, Thermo Fisher Scientific understands – in fact, acknowledges on its own website – that the genetic material [is] stolen from Ms. Lacks. “
The lawsuit also asks the court to order Thermo Fisher Scientific to “misappropriate the full amount of net income earned by trading the HeLa cell line on the Henrietta Lacks Estate.”
Christopher Seeger, another attorney for the Lacks family, said other companies would also be targeted for commercializing Lacks’ cells.
Thermo Fisher Scientific, he said, “shouldn’t feel too alone because they’ll have a lot of company soon.”
Lack’s story appeared about a decade ago when the book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” was released.
Her story gained more national attention with the release of the film “The Life of Henrietta Lacks”. Oprah Winfrey stars as Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, and Renee Elise Goldsberry portraying Henrietta.
Ron Lacks said his mother was the first person in the family to discover that cells obtained from his deceased mother -in -law, Henrietta Lacks, were still alive in 1973.
Ron Lacks is executor of the estate and the oldest grandson of Henrietta. For many years she was inspired by her mother’s determination to keep Henrietta’s name alive and she uses this inspiration to fight for her family’s ownership of her grandmother’s legacy.
“Every time, I go into my mom’s room, she gives me strength because I know I’m doing it for her. She started it in 1973. She started it, so when I go into her room and feed her, replace him, I know I’m doing it for him. ”Ron Lack told ABC News. “When you fight your family, you come from all the guns that are on fire, you don’t stop until you succeed or they overthrow me,” he added.
Johns Hopkins University said on its website that it “never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells” and the university does not own the rights to the HeLa cells.
The university also claims it helped the Lacks family come to an agreement requiring scientists to receive permission to use Henrietta Lacks’s genetic blueprint.