HomeArts & EntertainmentArt'Stolen' Cells: Henrietta Lacks' Family Sues Biotech Company, Citing Racist Medical System

‘Stolen’ Cells: Henrietta Lacks’ Family Sues Biotech Company, Citing Racist Medical System

On the 70th anniversary of the death of Henrietta Lacks, her estate has filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific, a biotechnology company who the family claims has been profiting off the sale of “stolen” cancerous cells that were harvested from Lacks’ cervix before she died in 1951 as part of “a racially unjust medical system.”

A descendant of Black Americans enslaved in Virginia, Lacks died in Baltimore, Maryland of cervical cancer on October 4th, 1951. Before that, however, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed some of her cancerous tissue, a procedure that changed the course of medical research history. But Lacks didn’t even know the tissue was being removed, the lawsuit says, placing Lacks’ plight within a larger context the racist history of medical research. “The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by black people throughout U.S.,” the suit says.

In 1951, shortly after Lacks passed away, her cells became the first human “immortal cell line” to grow and reproduce successfully in a lab. They have been multiplying by the billions in labs around the world ever since. Known as the HeLa line (using the first two letters of Lacks’ first and last name), Lacks’ cell line was used in the development of the polio vaccine, as well as innovations like gene mapping and in vitro fertilization and, more recently, in researching the Covid-19 vaccine. Lacks’ story and her cell line were the subject of a 2017 HBO movie starring Oprah as Lacks’ youngest daughter, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, based on a best-selling book by the same title.

Lacks’ estate argues the cells were taken from Lacks’ body without her knowing about it or giving permission. The cells weren’t removed to help with Lacks’ own medical treatment, but rather for medical research, the suit says. Doctors were striving to get human cells to live outside the body in laboratories where researchers could experiment with the causes and cures for cancer. The suit quotes one doctor who worked at the hospital at the time saying, “Hopkins, with its large indigent black population, had no dearth of clinical material.” Lacks was just one woman whose tissue was taken without her consent — but her cells were the first to survive in the lab. 

The suit claims that white doctors at Johns Hopkins routinely cut tissue samples from Black women with cervical cancer in segregated wards without the women’s knowledge or consent to use in their research, making Lacks the victim of a larger, racist, “conspiracy” at the institution. The procedure on Lacks rendered her infertile. 

The suit invokes other cases of the white-led medical community dehumanizing Black people for research, like the “Mississippi Appendectomy,” or systematic sterilization of black women, where doctors in the 1920s performed forced hysterectomies under the pretense of removing an appendix.  

By cultivating and selling Lacks’ cellular material to buyers across the globe, the suit alleges, Thermo Fisher Scientific has reaped tens of millions of dollars in profits from stolen genetic material. The company has acknowledged that Lacks’ cells were taken without her permission, the suit says, and Lacks’ estate demands compensation.

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 U.S. research and medical systems,” said Ben Crump, an attorney for the Lacks estate in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “Black people have the right to control their bodies and yet Thermo Fisher Scientific treats Henrietta Lacks’ living cells as chattel to be bought and sold.”

Thermo Fisher Scientific did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Rolling Stone.

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