Henrietta Lacks’ Estate Files Lawsuit Against Pharmaceutical Company For Using Her Cells Without Consent

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The estate of Henrietta Lacks, the Black woman whose cancer cells were taken to revolutionize biomedical research, has filed  a lawsuit against pharmaceutical company Thermo Fisher Scientific for using those  cells without the consent of her or her family.

The complaint, obtained by PEOPLE, alleges Thermo Fisher Scientific is “making a conscious choice to sell and mass produce the living tissue of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, grandmother, and community leader, despite the corporation’s knowledge that Ms. Lacks’ tissue was taken from her without her consent by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital.”

Lacks, 31, was a poor mother of five living in Baltimore who was diagnosed with cervical cancer. During her treatment at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, cells from her body were cultured, then became the cell line now known as HeLa, still in use today by medical researchers. For many years, her cells were the only ones known to reproduce indefinitely. She died Oct. 4, 1951, however, her cells were extracted without her family’s knowledge. They did not know of this until 1975.

RELATED: Feds, Family Reach Deal On Use of DNA Information

Although the cell line has been used in many areas of biomedical research including HIV/AIDS, cancer, in vitro fertilization and were even used by Dr. Jonas Salk in the first polio vaccine, her family has never received compensation.

Monday (Oct. 4) marked the 70th anniversary of Lacks’ death and attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents the family, criticized the company that continues to use the cells.

“Thermo Fisher Scientific’s choice to continue selling HeLa cells in spite of the cell lines’ origin and the concrete harms it inflicts on the Lacks family can only be understood as a choice to embrace a legacy of racial injustice embedded in the U.S. research and medical systems,” Crump said in a statement, “Black people have the right to control their bodies. And yet Thermo Fisher Scientific treats Henrietta Lacks’ living cells as chattel to be bought and sold.”

RELATED: Family of Henrietta Lacks Retains Attorney Ben Crump

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