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Descendants of Henrietta Lacks Announce Plan to Sue Pharmaceutical Companies Using Her ‘HeLa’ Cells Without Their Permission

Descendants of Henrietta Lacks Announce Plan to Sue Pharmaceutical Companies Using Her HeLa Cells Without Their Permission

Descendants of Henrietta Lacks Announce Plan to Sue Pharmaceutical Companies: Henrietta Lacks’ cells were removed and used for medical study without her knowledge decades ago, and they are still used for medical research today. Her family now wants pharmaceutical companies to pay up if they want to keep doing business with them, and they’ve hired civil rights attorney Ben Crump to make sure that happens.

Crump, who has represented the families of dead Black men and women, frequently at the hands of law enforcement, stated that he and his team would be going after as many as 100 drug firms in a statement to the Baltimore Sun earlier on Thursday, July 29.

This is on behalf of more than a dozen of Lacks’ descendants, including Lawrence Lacks Sr., Lacks’ eldest surviving son, and several great-grandchildren. Crump and the family’s other lawyer, Christopher Seeger, plan to submit their first legal claim later this fall, on the 70th anniversary of Lacks’ death.


“The pharmaceutical industry in the United States has a horrible history of benefitting from research at the expense of Black people without their knowledge, consent, or benefit, resulting in massive profits for pharmaceutical firms off our ailments and bodies,” Crump stated. “There is no greater example of this than Henrietta Lacks’ genetic material, which was seemingly endlessly manipulated. This unethical theft of her cells has enriched pharmaceutical firms unjustly, while Henrietta Lacks’ family has never been given any equity.”

Seeger, who has assisted in the settlement of multibillion-dollar lawsuits against companies like Volkswagen, said their team is laboriously researching any company “that has made a product that has either used the cells to build their products or commercialize it in some way or developed it, so that’s a lot of companies.”

The Maryland native’s cells, called “HeLa” cells, are a medical marvel, as they were the first “immortalized line” to thrive outside the body in a glass tube and not perish within days, as other “immortalized lines” had done previously. Lacks’ unwitting contribution to scientific study resulted in breakthroughs in vaccines, cancer therapies, and in vitro fertilization, saving many lives.

It was discovered in 1950, while giving birth to her fifth child at Johns Hopkins Hospital, that the 31-year-old woman had an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Her cells were taken without her or her family’s permission.


Lacks’ cell line, on the other hand, not only saved lives, but it also served as a model for the medical community’s ethical requirement for informed patient consent. Doctors are supposed to warn patients whether they will be utilized in any research capacity and to provide them a code number to ensure anonymity. This is known as the Common Rule.

The family has been embroiled in a legal struggle with Johns Hopkins University over the acquisition of their loved one’s cells. According to rumors over the years, the institution reached a deal with many members of the family allowing them to utilize the cells. Lacks Sr., who claims to be the estate’s executor, said that those individuals lacked the authority to make such judgments.

According to the institution, there were no standards in place at the time addressing consent or use, and because Johns Hopkins has never patented her cell line, it does not own the rights to it and cannot benefit from it. Despite the recent declaration of a plan to pursue claims against pharmaceutical companies, Lacks Sr. has not given up his struggle with the institution.

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