Henrietta Lacks Estate Sues Biotech Company For Unauthorized ‘Stolen’ Cells


October 27, 2021




MARYLAND (Associated Press) — It’s no longer a secret that institutional racism has played a significant role in the health of Black America. 

During the days when Jim Crow laws rang loud and proud in the ears of White Americans, Black people were refused service at white hospitals, many of which had more advanced technology than their segregated ‘colored’ counterparts. If hospitals were desegregated, white doctors were not allowed to tend to Black patients, despite the lack of Black doctors at a time when higher learning was difficult for Black aspiring healthcare professionals to obtain. 

Today, Black people continue to be at a medical disadvantage due to disproportionate access to affordable healthcare, where uninsured rates are still significantly higher for Black people than white people.

Apparently, however, the only time a Black person was worthy of any care from a white healthcare professional is if they are using their cells without their permission. According to the family of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who died of cervical cancer on October 4, 1951, that is exactly what happened at John Hopkins Hospital that year. 

Lacks’s family, the Henrietta Lacks Estate, accused the hospital of selling her cells, dubbed HeLa cells, which became the first human cells to be successfully cloned. HeLa cells were unique in that while most cells die after being removed from a body, Lacks’ cells survived in the labs, and they became widely known in the scientific community as the first immortalized human cell line. 

Since the discovery of HeLa, Lacks’ cells have been repurposed into medical advancements, such as the polio vaccine, genetic mapping, and most recently, COVID-19 vaccines. 

On the anniversary of her death, the Henrietta Lacks Estate filed a lawsuit against one of the hospital’s alleged buyers, Thermo Fisher Scientific. The lawsuit claims that Thermo Fisher Scientific has continued to commercialize results of HeLa cells, despite knowing the origins behind them. The suit asks that Thermo Fisher Scientific “disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks.” 

According to Thermo Fisher Scientific’s investor website, the company generates approximately $35 billion in revenue. While scientific corporations like Thermo Fisher Scientific saw financial success from HeLa cells, Lacks’ surviving family did not reap any of the benefits, the suit claims.

The Henrietta Lacks Estate lawsuit goes on to allege that a group of white doctors from John Hopkins Hospital actively preyed on Black female patients with cervical cancer in the 50s, cutting away tissues without their consent. 

John Hopkins Hospital claims they did an extensive review of interactions with its institution and Lacks’ family from over 50 years ago. While John Hopkins Hospital maintains that they have never sold or profited from HeLa cells, nor do they own any rights to the HeLa cell line, the hospital said they “acknowledge an ethical responsibility” to the incident. 

This is a serious issue that continues to plague Black America, the days of Jim Crow slowly re-emerging and affecting millions of Black Americans. Health will never be a topic to take lightly, especially when it comes to racial health disparities, making this an important and valuable piece of journalism. 

There are still people outside of the Black community who continue to turn a blind eye to the systemic racism Black people face, and the Associated Press plays an integral part in challenging those backwards beliefs with its initial reporting on HeLa cells. 

With the amount of research AP put into the story, along with getting accounts from both parties involved – John Hopkins and the Henrietta Lacks Estate – making for an unbiased perspective, I don’t believe I would change or reformat anything about this piece. 


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