Years After Her Death, The Science Community Is Still Treating Henrietta Lacks’ Cells Like “Chattel”
In the 1950s, a Black woman named Henrietta Lacks walked into Johns Hopkins Hospital to be treated for cervical cancer, and her cells would go on to be used in the research and development of crucial medical advancements — all without her consent. Decades later, Lacks' family is fighting back against a pharmaceutical company that has been making a billion dollar profit from her genetic material, hoping to restore their matriarch's agency after years of being used in the name of science.
The troubling story of Henrietta Lacks became well-known after the release of Rebecca Skloot's 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the subsequent film adaptation starring Renée Elise Goldsberry as Lacks and Oprah Winfrey as her grown daughter Deborah. After falling ill with mysterious symptoms in 1951, a visit to Johns Hopkins Hospital revealed that Henrietta had adenocarcinoma, an aggressive cancer that had spread to her reproductive system. While being treated for the disease, doctors at the hospital took two tissue samples from Lacks' cervix, and the cells that they gathered became the foundation for some of the the most important scientific breakthroughs of the 21st century — including "research on the effects of zero gravity in outer space and the development of the polio vaccine, to the study of leukemia, the AIDS virus and cancer worldwide."
Today, Lacks' family is seeking retribution and reparations for the years of exploitation. On Monday, October 4, the family filed a lawsuit at the U.S. District Courthouse in Baltimore accusing pharmaceutical giant Thermo Fisher Scientific of “unjust enrichment." The company is one of the many biomedical agents that has benefited financially from the now famous "HeLa" cells gathered at Johns Hopkins Hospital 70 years ago, and the Lacks family claims that Thermo Fisher's continued profit has come at the expense of Lacks and her surviving estate.
"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 US research and medical systems," reads 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."
The lawsuit seeks damages from Thermo Fisher equal to the net profits that it has acquired as a result of using the HeLa cells for all these years, which they've calculated as a whopping $250 billion. The Lacks are also requesting that the court requires Thermo Fisher to create a trust for all of the intellectual property and financial gains from the cells. Finally, the family wants the company to cease producing products using the cells without permission from the estate.
"[Thermo Fisher Scientific 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 Johns Hopkins Hospital and a racially unjust medical system," the lawsuit continues. "Its ill-gotten gains rightfully belong to Ms. Lacks' Estate."
More lawsuits related to the HeLa cells may pop up in the near future. The Lacks estate has reportedly been looking into other big companies that have used their matriarch's cells without their permission, and that list is very long; an attorney for the family said that their early investigation into the matter implicated nearly 100 different companies. As the party responsible for the collection and circulation of the HeLa cells, Johns Hopkins Hospital could also be facing a lawsuit of its own. Nonetheless, the hospital maintains that it "never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution" of Lacks' genetic material, blaming the initial collection of the cells on an insufficient protocol.
"At that time, our physician researchers routinely collected extra cell samples from cervical cancer patients during biopsies to be used for research purposes regardless of the race or socio-economic status of the patient," reads Johns Hopkins' official statement on the issue. "In 1951, the U.S. health system did not yet have any established practices for informing or obtaining consent from patients when retrieving extra cell or tissue samples from procedures to use for research purposes."
This is a developing story.