Unauthorized Science: Estate of Henrietta Lacks Sues Pharmaceutical Company For Using Cells Without Consent

By Tim Murphy

Impunity Watch News Staff Writer

BALTIMORE, Maryland – The estate of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose continuously dividing cells have been used in scientific and medical research for decades, is suing the pharmaceutical company Thermo Fisher Scientific for unjust enrichment, stating that Lacks’s cells were taken without her consent and have been used without the estate’s compensation for decades.

Many may have learned about Henrietta Lacks from a high school biology class, or read about her life in Rebecca Skloot’s popular 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which was later adapted into a film starring Oprah Winfrey. Born in 1920, Lacks was a Black woman who was undergoing treatment for cervical cancer when a doctor took and used a sample of Lacks’s cells in a petri dish without her consent. The cells, which later became known as “HeLa cells,” continued to rapidly reproduce outside the body, becoming the first human cell line to do so. Henrietta Lacks died shortly after in 1951. Neither Lacks nor her family was not compensated for her cells. 

Four of Henrietta Lacks’ grandchildren and attorney Ben Crump outside the U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Sun.

It wasn’t until decades after her death that the general public became aware that the HeLa cells were originally taken and used without Lacks’s consent. While there are now policies in place to protect patients from non-consensual use of cell-samples, these regulations did not exist at the time Lacks was undergoing treatment. Regardless, companies like Thermo Fisher Scientific are still using and profiting from HeLa cells without the compensation of Lacks’s estate.

The lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific seeks “the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks.”  However, for grandson Ron Lacks, the lawsuit is not just about the money. “We will celebrate taking back control of Henrietta Lacks’ legacy,” he said. The estate also plans to file lawsuits in the following weeks against other companies that profit from the HeLa cell line.

For further information, please see:

CNN – Estate of Henrietta Lacks sues biotechnical company for nonconsensual use of her cells – 5 Oct. 2021

Live Science – Henrietta Lacks’ family sues biotech firm for use of ‘stolen’ cells – 8 Oct. 2021

NPR – Henrietta Lacks’ estate sued a company saying it used her ‘stolen’ cells for research – Oct. 4 2021

The Baltimore Sun – Family of Henrietta Lacks files suit against biotech company for using famous ‘HeLa’ cells without permission – 4 Oct. 2021

The Washington Post – 70 years ago, Henrietta Lacks’s cells were taken without consent. Now, her family wants justice – 4 Oct. 2021

Author: Christian Gonzalez