Henrietta Lacks’ Family Sues Biotech Company For Using Her ‘Stolen’ Cells For Research

Henrietta Lacks’ Family Sues Biotech Company For Using Her ‘Stolen’ Cells For Research

The family of Henrietta Lacks is taking legal action against a biotechnology company that used her stolen cells for groundbreaking research.

Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells were infamously used without her permission back in 1951. And companies like the defendant, Thermo Fisher Scientific, have benefitted from the cells for decades.

Her estate alleges in a new lawsuit filed Oct. 4, the 70th anniversary of her passing, that Johns Hopkins Hospital physicians used the samples without her knowledge or permission amid “a radically unjust medical system” and Thermo Fisher Scientific still benefits from the cells today.

The tissue that was removed from her tumor ahead of her passing due to cervical cancer, and marked the first-ever human cells (later referred to as “immortal cells”) to be cloned successfully, allowing doctors and scientists to use them indefinitely for studies and research. They were also rare survivors in lab studies while other cells died under similar conditions.

Lacks’ HeLa cells have been reproduced countless times and contributed to research for medical avenues genetic mapping and the COVID-19 vaccine.

Her story has been told several times, including through a film, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, starring Oprah Winfreywho also executive produced the project.


Attorney Ben Crump serves on Lacks’ family’s legal team and said,

“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?” 

Johns Hopkins said that while it does have an ethical responsibility, but 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.”

Meanwhile, other companies have made billions from HeLa cells.

Christopher Seeger, who also represents the family, suggested more lawsuits would be coming soon, stating Thermo Scientific Fisher

“shouldn’t feel too alone because they’re going to have a lot of company soon.”

The lawsuit petitions the court to

“disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks.”

It says,

“The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history. 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.”

Thermo Scientific Fisher touts a $35 billion yearly revenue on its website.

Ron Lacks, one of Henrietta Lacks’ grandsons said,

“It’s about time. Seventy years later, we mourn Henrietta Lacks, and we will celebrate taking back control of Henrietta Lacks’ legacy. This will not be passed on to another generation of Lackses.”

Another grandson reiterated that the family is “united” in the case.


Authored by: Char Patterson