In 1951, Johns Hopkins Hospital took tissue from the cervix Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman diagnosed with cervical cancer, without her consent. Using the tissue sample, a doctor at the hospital was able to create the first human cell line to reproduce outside the body. Lacks died in 1951 from cancer at the age of 31.
The family of Henrietta Lacks filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. for “unjust enrichment from the nonconsensual use and profiting from her tissue sample and cell line.”
In the lawsuit, the family alleges that Thermo Fisher Scientific is “knowingly profiting from the ‘unlawful conduct’ off the Johns Hopkins doctors and that its ‘ill-gotten gains rightfully belong to Ms. Lacks’ Estate,'” and that the company is “making a conscious choice to sell and mass produce the living tissue of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, grandmother, and community leader, despite the corporation’s knowledge that Ms. Lacks’ tissue was taken from her without her consent by doctors at John Hopkins Hospital and a racially unjust medical system.”
The Lacks family have requested that the company disclose the amount of profits made by the commercialization of the HeLa cell line—along with reasonable costs and expenses—which is estimated to be around $250 billion.
Additionally, the family has asked the court to order Thermo Fisher Scientific to permanently stop the use of HeLa cells without the permission of the Lacks’ estate.
Attorneys say that Thermo Fisher is not the only corporation making profit off of Lacks’ cells.
John Hopkins Medicine released a statement in which it said that what happened to Lacks in 1951 “would not happen today” and that it was once common practice to researchers to collect extra cell samples from cervical cancer patients. Further, John Hopkins Medicine stated that it worked with member of the Lacks family and the National Institutes of Health to “help broker an agreement that requires scientists to receive permission to use Henrietta Lacks’ genetic blueprint, or to use HeLa cells in NIH funded research.”
See Taylor Romine, Estate of Henrietta Lacks sues biotechnical company for nonconsensual use of her cells, CNN, October 5, 2021.