The family of Henrietta Lacks, the Black woman whose tumor cells were harvested without her consent, filed a lawsuit against a biotechnology company who they say used the "stolen" cells for research and profit.
Lacks' cells, known as HeLa cells, are the first successfully cloned human cells and have been replicated in labs around the world since her death in 1951. The cells have been critical to modern medical advancement and were used in developing the polio vaccine, genetic mapping, and even the COVID-19 vaccines.
In the lawsuit filed Monday (October 4) –– 70 years to the date after her death –– Lacks' descendants say Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc. has commercialized the "stolen" cells even after the origin of where the cells came from became known.
"It is outrageous that this company would think that they have intellectual right property to their grandmother's cells," one of the family's attorneys, Ben Crump said at a news conference in front of the federal courthouse in Baltimore, Maryland, per NPR.
"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?"
The family is calling on the company to "disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks," another one of the family's attorneys, Christopher Seeger said. The family also wants the company to be permanently instructed not to use the cells without the permission of the estate.
For decades, HeLa cells were used in laboratories, advancing science and earning profits for companies while some of Lacks' descendants suffered chronic illness without health insurance coverage, as documented in the 2010 best-selling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
"The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history," the lawsuit reads. "Indeed, Black suffering has fueled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition. Various studies, both documents and undocumented, have thrived off the dehumanization of Black people."
At the press conference, Seeger hinted that other companies that have used the cells may also be sued in the near future.