Thermo Fisher Scientific Sued Over Use of Cell Line Obtained Without Consent

On Monday, a complaint was filed in the Maryland District Court by the Estate of Henrietta Lacks against Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc. The case is regarding the creation of the HeLa cell line and biological products from samples obtained from the plaintiff without consent or compensation.

“This case is about a multibillion-dollar biotechnology corporation, Thermo Fisher Scientific, 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 and a racially unjust medical system,” the complaint began.

Lacks, the complaint explained, suffered from cervical cancer and received treatment from the John’s Hopkins University segregated ward in 1951. While receiving treatment, additional samples were taken from her and were used to create a replicating bloodline for scientific research. The estate said that she did not consent to the removal of the samples, nor was she compensated for it. In addition, the plaintiffs assert that Lacks’ original consent to the treatment was flawed as the doctors did not warn for the certainty of sterility resulting from the procedure.

The bloodline was later used in numerous medical studies and was instrumental in the creation of the polio vaccine and treatments for sickle cell disease, among other studies. The bloodline is still in widespread use today and has been monetized with multiple products from Thermo Fisher Scientific, the complaint said. The story of the creation of the line itself has been the focus of multiple books, documentaries, podcasts, and movies. The estate also analogizes the continued use of the bloodline to continued human experimentation and notes that the widespread use of the bloodline invades the privacy of Lacks’ descendants.

The estate is suing for unjust enrichment. The estate is represented by Seeger Weiss LLP, the Law Offices of Kim Parker, and Ben Crump Law PLLC.