A federal judge heard arguments Tuesday (May 17) in a biotech company’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit by the estate of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cancer cells were taken without her permission in the 1950s and used to revolutionize biomedical research.
The judge’s deliberation could last for weeks, as it will take some time to review the motion, CBS Baltimore reports.
Civil rights attorneys Ben Crump and Chris Seeger represent Lacks’ family who filed the suit in October. It alleges that Thermo Fisher Scientific mass-produced and sold Lacks’ tissue collected by Johns Hopkins physicians without her knowledge.
“If Henrietta Lacks had been a white woman, her cells would have never been stolen without consent or compensation! The pharmaceutical companies profiting from her and her family NEED to be held accountable for this injustice!” Crump tweeted on May 17.
Attorneys for Thermo Fisher Scientific argued in court Tuesday that replicating Lacks' cells was not illegal and that the family should have sued years earlier, according to CBS Baltimore.
Lacks was a Baltimore mother diagnosed with cervical cancer. During her treatment at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, doctors extracted her cancer cells from a biopsied tumor without her consent. Now known as HeLa cells, the doctors noticed that her cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours and remained viable even outside of her body in test tubes.
Lacks died on October 4, 1951, almost two months after she was admitted to Johns Hopkins. But the HeLa cells have contributed to medical advancements, including the development of the polio vaccine and treatments for cancer and AIDS.
Over the years, HeLa cells have enriched companies, but the family has not been compensated.
“What if she had actually been treated like a white woman and they actually got her consent and then her family estate would have permission to say you can’t use this intellectual property, her genetic make-up without getting her permission and then having to compensate us for it, just like the descendants of Henry Ford, the descendants of Bill Gates,” Crump says, in part, in the video below.