Henrietta Lacks’ estate is suing Thermo Fisher Scientific, a pharmaceutical company, a lawyer for her family said on Monday. The suit filing accuses the company of profiting from a line of cells that doctors took from Lacks, a Black woman who died of cervical cancer, without her consent in 1951. Lacks’ cells were harvested by a doctor at Johns Hopkins hospital when she came in to be treated for the cancer. Her cells were unique, able to continuously divide and live viably outside of her body. The properties of the HeLa line allowed researchers to experiment on them, leading to medical breakthroughs on polio, radiation sickness, and sickle-cell anemia, among other diseases.
Ben Crump, the civil rights attorney representing Lacks’ estate, said Monday that Thermo Fisher had made a “conscious choice” to mass produce the cells, profiting from a “racially unjust medical system.” Crump, known for representing the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, added the 1951 procedure left Lacks infertile. It wasn’t until decades later that her family were made aware that her cells had been taken, and the estate hadn’t ever “seen a dime” of the money made from the medical advances. The suit will seek to award the estate the HeLa line’s profits, and bar Thermo Fisher from using it in the future without permission.