Henrietta Lacks Estate Sues Company Using Her ‘Stolen’ Cells


COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — The property of Henrietta Lacks sued a biotechnology company on Monday, accusing it of promoting cells that docs at Johns Hopkins Hospital took from the Black girl in 1951 with out her data or consent as a part of “a racially unjust medical system.”

Tissue taken from the girl’s tumor earlier than she died of cervical most cancers turned the primary human cells to be efficiently cloned. Reproduced infinitely ever since, HeLa cells have turn into a cornerstone of recent medication, enabling numerous scientific and medical improvements, together with the event of the polio vaccine, genetic mapping and even COVID-19 vaccines.

Lacks’ cells have been harvested and developed long before the advent of consent procedures utilized in medication and scientific analysis right now, however legal professionals for her household say Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., of Waltham, Massachusetts, has continued to commercialize the outcomes properly after the origins of the HeLa cell line turned well-known.

“It is outrageous that this company would think that they have intellectual rights property to their grandmother’s cells. Why is it they have intellectual rights to her cells and can benefit billions of dollars when her family, her flesh and blood, her Black children, get nothing?” one of many household’s attorneys, Ben Crump, mentioned Monday at a information convention outdoors the federal courthouse in Baltimore.

Johns Hopkins mentioned it by no means bought or profited from the cell traces, however many corporations have patented methods of utilizing them. Crump mentioned these distributors have made billions from the genetic materials “stolen” from Lacks’ physique.

Another household legal professional, Christopher Seeger, hinted at associated claims towards different corporations.

Thermo Fisher Scientific “shouldn’t feel too alone because they’re going to have a lot of company soon,” Seeger mentioned.

The lawsuit asks the court docket to order Thermo Fisher Scientific to “disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks.” It additionally desires Thermo Fisher Scientific to be completely enjoined from utilizing HeLa cells with out the property’s permission.

On its web site, the company says it generates roughly $35 billion in annual income. A company spokesman reached by phone didn’t instantly touch upon the lawsuit.

HeLa cells have been found to have distinctive properties. While most cell samples died shortly after being faraway from the physique, her cells survived and thrived in laboratories. This distinctive high quality made it potential to domesticate her cells indefinitely — they turned referred to as the primary immortalized human cell line — making it potential for scientists anyplace to breed research utilizing equivalent cells.

The outstanding science concerned — and the influence on the Lacks household, a few of whom suffered from power sicknesses with out medical insurance — have been documented in a 2010 bestselling e book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Oprah Winfrey portrayed her daughter in an HBO film concerning the story. The lawsuit was filed precisely 70 years after the day she died, on Oct. 4, 1951.

“The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history,” the go well with says. “Indeed, Black suffering has fueled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition. Various studies, both documented and undocumented, have thrived off the dehumanization of Black people.”

Shobita Parthasarathy, a University of Michigan professor of public coverage who has researched points round mental property in biotechnology, mentioned the lawsuit comes at a time when Lacks’ household is prone to have a sympathetic viewers for his or her claims.

“We are at a moment, not just after the murder of George Floyd but also the pandemic, where we have seen structural racism in action in all sorts of places,” she mentioned. “We keep talking about a racial reckoning, and that racial reckoning is happening in science and medicine, as well.”

Parthasarathy mentioned the case additionally comes amid revelations about how tech corporations are making the most of mining prospects’ knowledge.

“I think it’s raising questions for all of us about whether or not our structures of informed consent are adequate to deal with the realities of how data is being taken from us and used either to sell us things or to make companies money,” she mentioned.

A gaggle of white docs at Johns Hopkins within the Fifties preyed on Black girls with cervical most cancers, reducing away tissue samples from their sufferers’ cervixes with out their sufferers’ data or consent, the lawsuit says.

Johns Hopkins Medicine says it reviewed its interactions with Lacks and her household over greater than 50 years after the 2010 publication Rebecca Skloot’s e book. It says it “has never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line,” however it has acknowledged an moral duty.

“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,” Johns Hopkins Medicine says on its web site.

Crump, a Florida-based civil rights legal professional, has risen to nationwide prominence representing the households of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd ― Black individuals whose deaths by the hands of police and vigilantes helped revitalize a nationwide motion towards police reform and racial justice.

Seeger, a New Jersey-based company litigator, has represented 1000’s of former NFL gamers in a category motion settlement over concussions and was a lead negotiator of Volkswagen’s $21 billion diesel emissions settlement with automotive house owners.

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