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Civil rights attorney Ben Crump announced Monday that the estate of Henrietta Lacks has filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc. on the 70th anniversary of her death from cervical cancer, People reports.
The suit alleges Thermo Fisher Scientific made the conscious choice to use and profit from Lacks’ unique cells, even though the company was fully aware that the tissue was obtained without her consent. The estate is asking the court to order the company to “disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks.”
In 1951, a 31-year-old Lacks visited Johns Hopkins where she complained of vaginal hemorrhaging. It was discovered that she had a malignant tumor on her cervix. Tissue samples from her cervix were taken prior to her death without her permission and it soon became clear that her cells operated differently. While most cells quickly die after being collected, hers doubled every 20 to 24 hours, per New York Post.
These HeLa cells, as they became known, have proven to be beneficial for researchers and contributed to some landmark discoveries, ranging from vaccine development to cancer treatment. Meanwhile, her family never saw a dime from the alleged multi-billion dollar corporation that profited off of cells they were never allowed to use.
Johns Hopkins claims to have never sold HeLa cells, but takes responsibility for its failures in being upfront with Lacks’ family about the use of Henrietta’s tissue. “At several points across those decades, we found that Johns Hopkins could have — and should have — done more to inform and work with members of Henrietta Lacks’ family out of respect for them, their privacy and their personal interests,” the university’s website reads.
“Indeed, Black suffering has fueled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition,” the suit states. “Various studies, both documented and undocumented, have thrived off the dehumanization of Black people.”
Christopher Seeger, attorney for Lacks’ family, hinted that other biotech companies could be subjected to a similar lawsuit in the future.