Family of Henrietta Lacks files suit against biotech company for using famous ‘HeLa’ cells without permission

Family members of Henrietta Lacks joined attorney Ben Crump (center) for a press conference Monday.
Meredith Cohn, Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Sun Staff Report

Family members of Henrietta Lacks filed a lawsuit against the U.S. biotech giant Thermo Fisher Scientific for “unjust enrichment” after the company made and sold products relying on cells taken from the woman decades earlier without her consent.

The suit, filed Monday at the U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Baltimore, follows years of consideration by family members about how to remedy the treatment of Lacks and Black people generally in medicine and the related financial windfall for pharmaceutical companies.

The family said in July it had hired prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump to explore lawsuits against as many as 100 defendants, mostly pharmaceutical companies, and possibly Johns Hopkins Hospital where the so-called “HeLa” cells were taken.

Crump resides in Tallahassee, Fla., where his law firm is based.

“It is outrageous that this company would think that they have intellectual rights to (Lacks’) cells. Why would 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?” Crump said at a Monday news conference outside the U.S. District Court of Maryland along with co-counsels Christopher Seeger and Kim Parker.

“Black people have the right to control their bodies,” he said. “And yet Thermo Fisher Scientific treats Henrietta Lacks’ living cells as chattel to be bought and sold.”

Thermo Fisher Scientific, based in Waltham, Massachusetts, did not respond to a request for comment.

A Johns Hopkins doctor took a sample of cervical cancer cells from Lacks, then a 31-year-old mother from Turners Station, without her knowledge or consent 70 years ago. She died shortly thereafter in 1951. The cells were the first to live outside the body and were reproduced inside a laboratory, leading to a host of medical advances in everything from vaccines and cosmetics to in vitro fertilization.

Monday marked 70 years to the day since Lacks’ death. Hers is the first known “immortalized” cell line in medicine, according to the complaint.