The descendants of Henrietta Lacks – from whom the HeLa cell line originates – are suing a biotech firm that they say is profiting from the cells "stolen" from her body without her consent.
On October 4, 1951, aged just 31, Henrietta Lacks died – but her cells didn't. After Lacks arrived at Johns Hopkins hospital – the only one in the area that would treat black patients – reporting a "knot" inside her, doctors diagnosed her with cervical cancer and began treating her with radium implants, a crude treatment that was standard at the time.
As part of her treatment, tissue samples were collected without her consent. Upon analysis, doctors found that her cells continued to reproduce long after cells from virtually all other samples would die off outside their host, and at a very high rate. The cells became known as the "HeLa immortal cell line".
It's difficult to undersell the importance of these cells to research. Most cells cultured for lab research died within a few days, making it impossible to perform a variety of tests on the sample. Now, with an "immortal" cell that could divide and replicate, researchers could undertake all kinds of research, from cloning to in vitro fertilization, that they couldn't undertake before.
In 1954, Jonas Salk used Lacks' cells in his research developing the polio vaccine, mass-producing the cells in order to test his team's product. After this, her cells were in high demand and were produced for commercial and medical research for scientists around the world. Over 50 million tons of her cells have been produced and used in over 60,000 scientific studies.
This was all without her consent, and for many years without her family's knowledge. It was only when scientists realized that HeLa cells were contaminating other cultures in the lab that they sought out her family, with the intention of using their DNA to map Henrietta's genes, which would allow them to tell which cell cultures were her cells and which were not.
The family, who had lived in poverty for years and included one homeless member, discovered Lacks' cells had been used to create a multi-billion dollar industry.
"A racially unjust medical system”
Now, nearly 70 years after her death, Lacks' estate is now suing Thermo Fisher Scientific, asking a court in Baltimore to "disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks."
The suit alleges that Thermo Fisher Scientific knew that HeLa cells were stolen from Ms. Lacks and chose to "use her body for profit anyway".
"It is outrageous that this company would think that they have intellectual rights property to their grandmother's cells," a lawyer for the family said outside a courthouse on Monday. "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 case of the Lacks family isn't the only legal case brought against scientists using a person's cell line. In 1976, another cancer patient named John Moore was found to have blood cells that produced a protein that could stimulate the growth of white blood cells. These were used without his consent. When he found out and sued, the Supreme Court of California ruled that a person doesn't have a right over their cells, even if they prove profitable to scientists.
The new suit alleges that Henrietta Lacks was the victim of a "racially unjust medical system” that knowingly profited from her cells, and that she wasn't the only black woman to have had samples taken from them by a group of white doctors at Johns Hopkins in the 1950s.
"The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history," the suit reads. "Indeed, Black suffering has fuelled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition."
"Various studies, both documented and undocumented, have thrived off the dehumanization of Black people."
Johns Hopkins Medicine, meanwhile, 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."