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Estate of Henrietta Lacks sues biotech company over use of famous cells

The so-called HeLa cells removed from Henrietta Lacks during cancer treatment have the unique ability to regenerate endlessly.

Likening his grandmother's famous cancer cells to the woman herself, and their sale as akin to slavery, the executor of the estate of Henrietta Lacks filed a federal lawsuit Monday against Thermo Fisher Scientific seeking all of the biotechnology company’s profits from her cells.

"Black people have the right to control their bodies," according to the complaint filed in Baltimore federal court by civil rights attorneys Ben Crump and local counsel Kim Parker. “And yet Thermo Fisher Scientific treats Henrietta Lacks’ living cells as chattel to be bought and sold."

The suit is the latest salvo in the Baltimore family's troubled history with Johns Hopkins Hospital, whose doctors treated Lacks' cancer – and removed some of her cells – in 1951, before modern notions of informed consent took hold.

Used by medical researchers for decades and made famous by science writer Rebecca Skloot in her 2010 book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," the so-called HeLa cells – part of a cancerous tumor cut from Lacks' cervix – have the unique ability to regenerate endlessly.

Johns Hopkins gave the cells to researchers in the interest of science but hid Lacks' identity for decades after the discovery, only revealing the source of the remarkable cell culture in the early 1970s.

Hundreds if not thousands of medical discoveries have been made and tested using the cells, which were even shot into space to assess the effect of zero gravity on human tissue.

"Thermo Fisher Scientific’s business is to commercialize Henrietta Lacks’ cells—her living bodily tissue—without the consent of or providing compensation to Ms. Lacks’ estate," the lawsuit states.  "All the while, Thermo Fisher Scientific understands—indeed, acknowledges on its own website—that this genetic material was stolen from Ms. Lacks. Thermo Fisher Scientific’s business is nothing more than a perpetuation of this theft."

Thermo Fisher did not respond to emailed requests for comment Monday.

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A spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins University pointed to a page on the institution's web site honoring Lacks. It is also planning to name a research building after her.

Some of the Lacks' descendants, claiming they were stonewalled by Johns Hopkins and disrespected by Skloot, have been trying to get paid for more than a decade. A previous suit against the hospital was announced in 2017, though it is unclear whether it was ever filed. 

During a July press conference, the estate’s attorney, Crump – famous for his flamboyant representation of the families of Michael Brown, George Floyd and other victims of police violence – announced new lawsuits would be forthcoming, possibly against more than 100 pharmaceutical companies.

“The family has not received anything from that theft of her cells, and they treated her like a specimen, like a lab rat like she wasn’t human, with no family, no babies, no husband that loved her,” Kimberley Lacks, the granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks, said at the time.  

Monday’s lawsuit was brought by Ron L. Lacks, the estate's executor and grandson of Henrietta Lacks.

“It seems that my family has been shut out of everything profit-bearing of my grandmother and our family history,” he told the Dundalk Eagle last year in a story promoting his book, "Henrietta Lacks the Untold Story," which he says aims to correct misimpressions left by Skloot's book. 

The complaint mentions the Tuskegee experiments, in which Black men were secretly denied treatment for syphilis, along with World War II mustard gas experiments on Black soldiers and hysterectomies that were performed on Black women in Mississippi under the guise of appendectomies.

“Too often, the history of medical experimentation in the United States has been the history of medical racism,” the lawsuit states.

In 2013, the National Institutes of Health announced new ethical guidelines concerning HeLa cells, restricting access to the complete DNA sequence to "scientific researchers funded by U.S. government grants."

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The complaint mentions the Tuskegee experiments, in which Black men were secretly denied treatment for syphilis, along with World War II mustard gas experiments on Black soldiers and hysterectomies that were performed on Black women in Mississippi under the guise of appendectomies.