Henrietta Lacks’ estate says pharma company profited from stolen cells

FILE PHOTO: Lawyer Crump and Floyd family appear at rally for Anthony McClain

By Blake Brittain

(Reuters) – The estate of a Black woman whose cervical cells were taken from her decades ago without her permission sued a pharmaceutical company on Monday, saying it made a “conscious choice” to mass produce the cells and profit from a “racially unjust medical system.”

Henrietta Lacks’ estate hasn’t “seen a dime” of the revenue Thermo Fisher Scientific made from cultivating the HeLa cell line that was taken from Lacks at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951, according to the lawsuit filed in Maryland federal court.

“The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout U.S. history. Indeed, Black suffering has fueled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition,” the suit says.

Waltham, Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney who has also represented the families of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown following their deaths, represents Lacks’ estate.

Ron Lacks, Henrietta’s grandson, is the executor of her estate.

Lacks’ story was chronicled in the 2010 best-selling book and the 2017 film both titled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

The tissue sample for the HeLa cell line was taken from Lacks at Johns Hopkins during a procedure to treat her cervical cancer, which left her infertile, according to the lawsuit.

Lacks, who wasn’t told that Johns Hopkins planned to take the samples and didn’t consent to it, died of cancer later that year.

Since then, the HeLa line, the first to survive and reproduce indefinitely in lab conditions, has been used to test the polio vaccine, research the effects of radiation on human cells, and develop a treatment for sickle-cell anemia, according to the suit.

The suit asks the court to award Lacks’ estate the profits from Thermo Fisher’s use of the HeLa line and permanently block it from using the line without permission.

“Put simply, because it made the conscious choice to profit from the assault of Henrietta Lacks, Thermo Fisher Scientific’s ill-gotten gains rightfully belong to Ms. Lacks’ estate,” the lawsuit says.

(Reporting by Blake Brittain; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Aurora Ellis)