Henrietta Lacks’ family hires Crump to sue pharma companies for building wealth off her cells

"They took something from this family and have offered them nothing," an attorney representing the family said.

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The family of Henrietta Lacks has hired famed civil rights attorney Ben Crump to pursue justice over the longtime unauthorized use of her cells for medical research.

As previously reported by theGRIO, Lacks, a descendant of slaves, was born in Roanoke, Virginia on August 1, 1920, as Loretta Pleasant. As a teenager, she gave birth to a child fathered by her first cousin David “Day” Lacks, who became her husband in 1941. In all, the couple had five children, one of whom was mentally ill, institutionalized, and later died.

During the birth of the fifth child in 1950 at John Hopkins Hospital, which treated Black people, it was discovered that Lacks had an aggressive form of cervical cancer. She died in 1951 but, amazingly, her cells lived on, and were used without consent, literally helping to save the lives of many people. 

Henrietta Lacks thegrio.com
Cells taken from Henrietta Lacks, shown in the 1940s, eventually helped lead to a multitude of medical treatments. But neither she nor her family gave consent. (Credit: John Hopkins/Lacks Family)

Lacks’ cells, known as HeLa cells, were unusual because hers were the first ones found to grow outside the body and not die within days as others had. In fact, they were able to reproduce an entire generation every 24 hours, according to reports.

Cells taken from Lacks helped lead to a multitude of medical treatments, but neither she nor her family gave consent.

Her descendants now seek compensation from big pharmaceutical companies that profited from using HeLa cells in medical research. Lawrence Lacks Sr., the oldest surviving son of Henrietta, appeared at a press conference this week where Crump spoke about representing the family, The Baltimore Sun reports.

Kenton Myers thegrio.com
(Credit: John Hopkins/Lacks Family)

“The American pharmaceutical community has a shameful history of profiting off research at the expense of Black people without their knowledge, consent, or benefit, leading to mass profits for pharmaceutical companies from our illnesses and our very bodies,” said Crump. “There is no clearer example of this than Henrietta Lacks and the seemingly endless manipulation of her genetic material. The pharmaceutical companies have been unjustly enriched by this unethical taking of her cells, while Henrietta Lacks’ family has never been afforded any equity.”

“This is the greatest example of corporate theft I’ve seen in my career and I’ve been pursuing pharmaceutical companies for 25 years,” said the family’s other attorney, Christopher Seeger. “They took something from this family and have offered them nothing, yet they’ve gone out and made millions of dollars.”

“So widespread was the subsequent distribution of HeLa cells over the years that 76,000 research articles have been written that cite use of the cells in one form or another,” wrote David Kroll in his Forbes article, “Ethical Justice, But No Financial Rewards, For The Henrietta Lacks Family.”

The case of Henrietta Lacks, per a press release, helped to establish the ethical standard for informed patient consent in the medical community known as the Common Rule. The Common Rule requires doctors to inform patients if any aspect of their medical case will be used for research and to assign them a code number to establish anonymity.

“Henrietta’s cells have been monetized by big pharmaceutical companies for decades.  While vaccines may save lives, these companies have profited from the ill-gotten genetic material of Mrs. Lacks, taken without her permission. It’s simply not right and we intend to hold them accountable,” said Seeger.

Crump and Seeger intend to file the first lawsuits on Oct. 4, the day Lacks died 70 years ago.

“At what point does a person’s property and cells belong to them?” said Alan Wilks, one of her grandsons.

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