Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks (Courtesy of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation)

The estate of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells were used in 1951 without her knowledge or consent to further the advancement of medical science, has sued a biotechnology company for selling those cells without permission.

The lawsuit filed Monday accuses Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. of Waltham, Massachusetts, of knowingly mass-producing and selling tissue that doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took from Lacks as part of “a racially unjust medical system,” CBS News reported.

“Thermo Fisher Scientific has known that HeLa cells were stolen from Ms. Lacks and chose to use her body for profit anyway,” the lawsuit says, CBS reported.

The HeLa cells, taken from the Lacks’ tumor before she died in 1951 of cervical cancer, became the first known immortalized human cell line, meaning scientists could reproduce the cells indefinitely — which has been done without consent or compensation, the Lacks estate says.

Lacks’ family, represented by lawyers that include civil rights attorney Ben Crump, said the cells stolen from her body continue to be commercialized for profit.

“We want to make sure that the family voice is finally heard after 70 years of being ignored,” Crump told CBSN on Monday. “The American pharmaceutical corporations have a shameful history of profiting off the research of using and exploiting Black people and their illnesses and their bodies.”

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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