Watch CBS News

Judge Considers Motion To Dismiss Lawsuit Against Biotech Company By Henrietta Lacks' Family

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- A federal judge on Tuesday heard a motion to dismiss the lawsuit against a biotech company by the family of Henrietta Lacks. The judge's deliberation could take weeks.

Henrietta Lacks is a Baltimore woman whose cells were taken without her permission decades ago, and they are still being used for medical research today.

"These cells were taken away from her body like she was a lab rat, an experiment and no one even reached out to the family to let them know anything has taken place.

Lacks' family is represented by nationally-renowned civil rights attorney Ben Crump and Chris Seeger, who filed suit against Thermo Fisher Scientific last October. The lawsuit alleges the company knowingly mass-produced and sold tissue taken from Lacks by Johns Hopkins doctors.

Lacks went to Johns Hopkins in 1951 for cervical cancer treatment. When her cancer cells were biopsied, doctors realized that instead of dying, her cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours.

They were nicknamed the "HeLa cells" and played a critical role in medical advancements. Despite having no permission from Lacks or her family, the cells were taken and are still being used for research in many things including vaccines and cosmetics. The HeLa cells were also used in the development of the polio vaccine, along with treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, leukemia and Parkinson's disease. Lacks died of cancer in 1951.

Attorneys for the family argue that companies have unjustly gotten rich off the cells that were taken without permission and those companies continue to make billions today without compensating the family.

"The theory of unjust enrichment entitles the family to their day in court - that Henrietta lives as long as her cells live," said Attorney Ben Crump, who also said Lacks would not have been treated that way if she were a white woman.

"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," Crump continued. "Just like the descendants of Henry Ford, the descendants of Bill Gates."

In court on Tuesday, attorneys for Thermo Fisher Scientific argued that no law prohibits them from replicating the cells and that the family may no longer be able to go through with the lawsuit because too much time has passed.

The judge said she will take some time to review the case. Outside the courthouse, attorneys for Thermo Fisher Scientific say they had no comment.

Attorneys for the Lacks family said this is just the start.

"Do you have any reason to believe that other pharmaceutical companies are watching what's happening here as well?" asked WJZ's Ava-joye Burnett.

"They're in the audience, their defense lawyers watching, " answered Seeger.

Seeger also hinted that more companies could be sued.

"They've been stealing money from this family for 60 years," said Seeger.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.