Family of Henrietta Lacks sues pharmaceutical companies for theft of her cells

Published: Jul. 30, 2021 at 9:42 AM EDT
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BALTIMORE (WJZ) - The descendants of Henrietta Lacks are filing what could be an unprecedented lawsuit.

Her cells were taken without her permission decades ago.

To this day, for-profit pharmaceutical companies still use the cells but don’t pay the family for them.

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump stood with Lacks’ family on Thursday and announced his team will be suing pharmaceutical companies who continue to use her cells without her permission.

“Her family is here today to start the journey to right that wrong,” Crump said.

In the mid-1900s, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins to get treatment for cervical cancer.

The institution itself documented what happened next.

Her cancerous cells were sent to a “nearby tissue lab” for a biopsy, where the doctor realized that instead of dying, her cells “doubled every 20 to 24 hours.”

They were nicknamed the “HeLa cells” and played a crucial role in medical advancements.

However, doctors never asked Lacks or her family for permission to use the cells.

“The Lacks has not received anything from that theft of her cells,” her granddaughter, Kimberley Lacks, said.

The cells are still being used for medical research like developing vaccines.

Johns Hopkins has said it “celebrates and honors the incredible contribution” the HeLa cells have made to medical research.

The institution has said it “did not sell or profit from the discovery or distribution of Hela cells.”

Attorney Chris Seeger said the team is not ruling out contacting Johns Hopkins, and about a hundred other pharmaceutical companies could be potential targets.

“We are doing our research and figuring out every pharmaceutical company that has made a product that has either used the cells to build their products or commercialize it in some way,” Seeger said.

Attorneys said since companies still use the cells, the statutes of limitation shouldn’t be an issue.

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