The estate of Henrietta Lacks is suing a pharmaceutical company accusing it of selling cells Johns Hopkins doctors took in 1951 without her consent.
The suit was filed on Monday, the same day a statue of Lacks was unveiled at the University of Bristol. Lacks, a Black woman from Virginia, died in 1951 of cervical cancer. Cells taken from her body known as HeLa cells, changed the course of modern medicine.
However, the cells were taken without her consent or knowledge. Lacks’ cells were the first living human cell to survive and multiply outside the body. According to The Guardian, the suit alleges Thermo Fisher Scientific, based in Massachusetts, knowingly mass produced and sold tissue that was taken from Lacks by doctors at the hospital and “a racially unjust medical system.”
The suit has asked the court in Baltimore to order Thermo Fisher to “disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks.”
Additionally, the plaintiffs are seeking a permanent injunction instructing Thermo Fisher Scientific from using the HeLa cell line without the estate’s permission. According to the company, it generates around $35 billion in annual revenue.
Lacks’ contribution to medical science has been well documented in both print and on screen in an HBO movie, in which Oprah Winfrey played Lacks’ daughter.
The suit adds that a group of White doctors at Johns Hopkins in the 1950s preyed on Black women who had cervical cancer and cut away tissue samples without their consent, according to an NBC News report.
“The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history,” the suit says. “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.”