It asks the court to order the biotechnology corporation to relinquish the profit made from Lacks’s cell line and give it to her family. The lawsuit also seeks the intellectual property related to these cells.
“This will not be passed on through another generation,” said Ron Lacks at a news conference Monday, exactly 70 years after his grandmother died. “We want the world to know that we want our family’s legacy back.”
Thermo Fisher Scientific, headquartered in Massachusetts, did not respond to requests for comment. The company generates approximately $35 billion in annual revenue, according to its website.
The lawsuit charged the company with treating “Henrietta Lacks’ living cells as chattel to be bought and sold.”
This dispute originated in what the lawsuit called a “racially unjust medical system.” In 1951, after Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, doctors took samples from her cervix without her knowledge or permission. That procedure inflicted great pain on Lacks and left her infertile, the lawsuit says. Later that year, the 31-year-old mother of five died of cancer in a segregated ward of the hospital.
The cells from her cervix, however, lived on and were used in research. While most cells die quickly in lab settings, Lacks’s cells rapidly reproduced and survived. That quality dramatically expanded the capacity for research and helped shape modern medicine.
Over the decades, Lacks’s line of cells has contributed to breakthroughs on the effects of zero gravity in space, the polio vaccine, the human genome, diseases such as leukemia and AIDS, and even coronavirus vaccines.
The cells were named HeLa cells for the first two letters of Lacks’s first and last name. But until about a decade ago, the identity of the woman behind those initials was largely hidden — including from her descendants. A 2010 book titled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” written by Rebecca Skloot, changed that by telling the story of the Baltimore woman and the afterlife of her cells. The book was later adapted into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey, and it prompted Johns Hopkins to admit that it should have “done more to inform and work with” the Lacks family over the years.
The publicity surrounding Lacks and her cells, the lawsuit argues, means that every person or corporation working with HeLa cells should be aware of their origin story and therefore ask permission from Lacks’s family before using the cells for profit. Court filings pointed to language from an article on Thermo Fisher Scientific’s website that acknowledges the “widespread but unsanctioned use of HeLa cells from Henrietta Lacks.”
The Lacks family had long tried to take legal action against companies that they say have profited from their relative’s cells. Only recently did they find Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney known for representing the families of Trayvon Martin and George Floyd.
“Why can’t her family, her generations of yet unborn children, benefit from the cells that have benefited the world?” Crump said at Monday’s news conference, calling on corporations to follow through on the social justice commitments they made after the Floyd murder.
Johns Hopkins has said it never sold or profited from the cell lines, but Crump still called on the hospital to “give the family justice.”
In a statement Monday, a spokesperson for Johns Hopkins emphasized that the hospital years ago worked with members of the Lacks family and the National Institutes of Health to reach an agreement requiring researchers to receive permission to use Lacks’s genetic blueprint or HeLa cells in NIH-funded research.
“What happened to Henrietta Lacks in 1951 would not happen today,” said Kim Hoppe, vice president of communications for Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Crump said he expects that there will be claims against other companies that have allegedly profited from the cells.