On the 70th anniversary of her death, the family of Henrietta Lacks filed a lawsuit against the biotech company Thermo Fisher Scientific for the commercialization of her now-famous cell line. Lacks’ descendants argue that the company profited from the cell line long after its unethical origins were publicly known.
In 1951, Lacks was undergoing treatment for cervical cancer in a segregated surgical ward at the Hopkins Hospital. Without her consent or knowledge, a biopsy of her cells was sent to the hospital laboratory of Dr. George Gey for research. Unlike other cell cultures that died quickly after arrival in Gey’s office, Lacks’ cells continued to divide — indefinitely.
This immortal cell line, now known as HeLa cells, soon became a foundational tool for research. Lacks’ cells contributed to the development of the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization and recently SARS-Cov-2 replication in human cells. Many accomplishments of modern medicine can be credited to HeLa cells.
Lacks family sues Thermo Fisher
Currently, Thermo Fisher sells HeLa cells to researchers for upwards of $2,000 per milliliter depending on whether the cells are modified. Neither Lacks nor her descendants have received any financial compensation for the use of her cells. On Oct. 4, the family sued Thermo Fisher for the intellectual property of HeLa cells, as well as any profits related to the cell line.
Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represented the families of George Floyd and Trayvon Martin, is representing the family in the suit. Though some members of the Lacks family have previously mentioned legal action against the Hopkins Hospital, the institution is not a defendant in this suit.
In June 2020, following Floyd's murder, Thermo Fisher Senior Vice President and President of Customer Channels Fred Lowry launched a $20-million social justice campaign with other Massachusetts executives to address systemic racism. In February, the company released a statement that it had donated $25 million toward minority-serving financial institutions.
In an interview with The News-Letter, Crump explained that the family is suing Thermo Fisher in order to hold it and other pharmaceutical companies accountable for their public commitments to social justice.
“If you want to hold to the word that you are sincere in your commitment to social justice that you made after George Floyd, then why won’t you do right by Henrietta Lacks?” Crump said.
Crump also stated that the Lacks family’s legal demands are based on strong legal precedents from inheritance law.
“When people get patents and trademarks, their children continue to get benefits from their contribution for generations,” Crump said. “It’s not like we’re saying we have to do something that’s earth-shattering to figure out the equity that should go to Henrietta’s estate.”
Though the Lacks family is currently pursuing a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher, Crump noted that the family may take legal action against others who have benefitted from HeLa cells in the future.
"We continue to research and learn about different people that have benefited from Henrietta lacks cells and anticipate more people," he said.
Thermo Fisher did not respond to The News-Letter’s request for comment by press time.
The role of Hopkins
According to a University website, Hopkins has not profited from HeLa cells and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line. The University attributes what happened to Lacks to the loose bioethical standards of the time.
“It was common practice at Hopkins for extra samples to be collected from cervical cancer patients during biopsies to be used for research purposes, regardless of race or socio-economic status,” the website says. “Today, if researchers want to take tissues or blood for research, Federal law requires informed consent.”
In 2018, the University announced plans to name a research building in Lacks’ honor, and in 2019 it selected Vines Architecture to begin early planning for the building. The most recent post on the building’s updates page is from Oct. 5, 2019.
University administration did not respond to The News-Letter’s request for comment by press time.
In the past, Hopkins students have advocated for greater recognition of Lacks and the institution’s involvement in the unapproved use of her cells for research. The recent lawsuit has prompted students to reflect on the University’s legacy.
Miso Rashed, a senior Public Health major, feels the treatment of Lacks illustrates how Hopkins has historically exploited Black people. She connected Lacks ‘ case to other controversial actions by Hopkins in an email to The News-Letter.
“From this to the empty properties owned by Hopkins, to the police force, it seems that Hopkins (and this can be extended to most research institutions and corporations) sees Black people as guinea pigs and not as humans,” Rashed wrote.
In an interview with The News-Letter, recent Hopkins graduate and medical student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Javier Jurado Vélez acknowledged that Hopkins has taken steps to honor the legacy of Lacks, but he believes more engagement with her story is necessary.
“It’s imperative for us to honor Henrietta Lacks as an important figure in modern medicine,” he said. “Perhaps my point of view is that as part of the entire Hopkins community, we should be having more active discussions about her legacy, the HeLa cells and also listen more to the Lacks family.”
Jurado Vélez also elaborated on how those in the field of medicine should consider Lacks’ story to inform their own practices.
“As a medical student, stories like these and so many others are critical to illustrate the reality of the medical profession and some of its pitfalls,” he said. “I believe that if we take an active role, we can learn from our present and past to slowly build a better environment where patients can come into health care and feel safe and welcomed and embraced.”
On Wednesday, Hopkins opened nominations for the Henrietta Lacks Memorial Award, which provides local organizations with $15,000 grants to pursue projects related to community improvement. The award has operated in previous years, and the relationship between the news of the family’s lawsuit and the announcement of the award is unclear.
Will Blair contributed reporting to this article.