Henrietta Lacks' family sues biotech firm for use of 'stolen' cells

A photo of Henrietta Lacks, sits in the living room of her grandson, Ron Lacks, 57, n Baltimore, MD on March 22, 2017
(Image credit: Getty / The Washington Post / Contributor)

The family of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cervical cancer cells were taken without consent in 1951, cloned and widely used for medical research, has sued the biotechnology company Thermo Fisher Scientific, arguing that the company derived profits from the cell line long after its unethical origins became publicly known.

The legacy of Lacks' cell line — known as the HeLa cell line — dates back to 1951, when Lacks received treatment for cervical cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Live Science previously reported. During a biopsy, Dr. George Gey sampled cells from Lacks' tumor and cultured those cells in a lab dish, without Lacks' knowledge or consent. To Gey's surprise, the cells just kept dividing indefinitely, which no cell line had ever done before. 

In the years to come, the "immortal" cells would become the most widely used cell line in biological research and would contribute to major breakthroughs, like the advent of the polio vaccine. Though the cancerous HeLa cells differ from healthy human cells, scientists found that the cells could still be infected by the poliovirus and that they survived the infection longer than normal cells, making them ideal for testing vaccines, STAT reported. Scientists have also infected the cells with the viruses that cause HIV, herpes and Zika, to probe how the pathogens work, and also used the long-lived cells to study cellular aging.

Related: 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks': Q&A with author Rebecca Skloot 

Lacks died soon after her biopsy in 1951, and her family didn't learn about the use of her cells in research until the mid-1970s. The family hasn't received any compensation for the use of Lacks' cells, although more than 100 corporations, mostly pharmaceutical firms, have profited off of the HeLa cell line, Christopher Seeger, a member of the family's legal counsel, said at a news conference Monday (Oct. 4), The Boston Globe reported.

"Almost all medicines that have been developed and marketed have been tested on these cells," Seeger said at the news conference, according to The Baltimore Sun. "Every time a company does that with knowledge that they're working with stolen material, they're enhancing [the family's] claim."

In the suit against Thermo Fisher, the Lacks family seeks both financial compensation from the biotech giant and an agreement that the company won't use HeLa cells in the future without first obtaining permission from the Lacks estate. The lawsuit doesn't specify a financial amount but instead asks the court to order Thermo Fisher to "disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks," according to The Associated Press (AP). 

The lawsuit specifically names a dozen Thermo Fisher products that use HeLa cells, according to the Boston Globe. At the news conference, Lacks' grandson Lawrence Lacks Jr. said that the family is “united” behind the case, the AP reported.

"It is outrageous that this company [Thermo Fisher] would think that they have intellectual rights property to their grandmother's cells," Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer representing the Lacks family, said at the news conference, according to the AP. "Why is it they have intellectual rights to her cells and can benefit billions of dollars when her family, her flesh and blood, her Black children, get nothing?"

According to Seeger, the Lacks estate plans to file suits against several more companies in the coming weeks and may potentially sue Johns Hopkins Hospital, as well, The Boston Globe reported. Thermo Fisher "shouldn't feel too alone because they're going to have a lot of company soon," Seeger said at the news conference.  

Several news outlets — including USA Today, the AP and The Boston Globe — contacted Thermo Fisher for comment on the lawsuit, but the company has yet to respond or issue a statement, according to the Globe and The Scientist.

Originally published on Live Science.

Nicoletta Lanese
Channel Editor, Health

Nicoletta Lanese is the health channel editor at Live Science and was previously a news editor and staff writer at the site. She holds a graduate certificate in science communication from UC Santa Cruz and degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in The Scientist, Science News, the Mercury News, Mongabay and Stanford Medicine Magazine, among other outlets. Based in NYC, she also remains heavily involved in dance and performs in local choreographers' work.