Family of Henrietta Lacks Files Lawsuit Over Unauthorized Use of Her Cells

The family of Henrietta Lacks has filed a series of lawsuits over the use of Lacks’ cells without her knowledge or consent.

Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line and one of the most important cell lines in medical research.  Lacks’ case is historic and ground-breaking as it changed modern medicine because of the cells’ unusual ability to survive in laboratories, making it possible for researchers to reproduce studies using identical conditions.

A lawsuit filed last week in Baltimore is against the California-based biopharmaceutical company Ultragenyx. The Lacks’ family says the company never asked for permission to use the cells after learning of their origin, according to AP.

”Ultragenyx’s choice to continue utilizing HeLa cells despite the cell line’s origin and the concrete harm it inflicts on the Lacks family can only be understood as a choice to embrace a legacy of racial injustice embedded in the U.S. research and medical systems,” attorney Ben Crump said in a statement. “Like anyone else, Black people have the right to control their bodies.

The family is planning to file more lawsuits, accusing scientific companies of profiting off Lacks’ cells. Back in 1950, the time this occurred, it was not illegal for doctors to develop cells without a patient’s permission, but the family has said the companies continue to commercialize the cell line even though they know the origin.

“Medical research has a long, troubled racial history,” family attorneys wrote. “The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout American history. Indeed, Black suffering has fueled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition.”

Lacks died at age 31 after being diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. She was a mother of five who lived outside Baltimore. Doctors from Johns Hopkins Hospital collected and saved her cells, although hospital officials say Johns Hopkins never sold or profited from the cell line.

The impact of the cells, as well as the lives of Lacks and her family, have been written about in a bestselling book by Rebecca Skloot, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The book was published in 2010 and then made into an HBO movie in which Oprah Winfrey played Lacks’ daughter.

According to AP, among the medical innovations possible because of the HeLa cells are vaccines and genetic mapping. Ultragenyx has used the cells to develop gene therapy products. Other companies have patented other ways to use the cells.

Read More About General