The descendants of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were taken without her permission decades ago, are suing pharmaceutical companies that continue to use her cells without compensating the family. Prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump will be representing the family in what reports say could be an unprecedented lawsuit.
“The pharmaceutical corporations unethically and some may say illegally took her cells, her miraculous cells without her knowledge nor permission and they have manipulated her genetic material to this day,” Crump said on Thursday. “Her family is here today to start the journey to right that wrong.”
On January 29, 1951, Lacks felt abdominal discomfort in her womb and sought treatment at John Hopkins hospital. Suffering a hemorrhage, she was tested for the sexually transmitted infection, syphilis. The results returned negative. Her doctor, Howard W. Jones, biopsied the mass on Lacks’ cervix. It was determined that she had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma.
Lacks was treated using radium tube inserts. She was to come back to the hospital for X-ray follow-up treatments. Unbeknown to Lacks and without her consent, samples were taken from her cervix. The samples were given to George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher and doctor at John Hopkins. One sample was non-cancerous while the other was cancerous.
The cells extracted from Lacks’ cervix later became known as the HeLa immortal cell line; a widely used cell line. The HeLa line is commonly used in scientific research. What is also remarkable about HeLa is that the cells can be used time and time again. Even if the cells are no longer “alive,” a fresh batch can be taken from the original culture of cells. On August 8, 1951, Lacks complained of severe abdominal pain. She was given several blood transfusions and stayed at John Hopkins until her death on October 4, 1951. She died at the age of 31.
In 1952, a vaccination for Polio was developed using the HeLa cells. In 1953, the cells were the first to be successfully cloned. In addition, the cells have been used in gene mapping and further research for various illnesses. There are currently 11,000 patents held for the HeLa cells.
“The family has not received anything from that theft of her cells, and they treated her like a specimen, like a lab rat like she wasn’t human, with no family, no babies, no husband that loved her,” said Kimberley Lacks, the granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks.
Johns Hopkins has said it “celebrates and honors the incredible contribution to advances in biomedical research made possible by Henrietta Lacks.” The institution said it never patented HeLa cells, and therefore does not own rights to the HeLa cell line. “Johns Hopkins also did not sell or profit from the discovery or distribution of Hela cells,” it added.
Chris Seeger, an attorney who is also representing Lacks’ family, said: “We are doing our research and figuring out every pharmaceutical company that has made a product that has either use the cells to build their products or commercialize it in some way or develop it so that’s a lot of companies.”
Attorneys said companies still use the cells today, and each time the cells are used, the clock on the statute of limitations restarts, CBS Baltimore reported.
Lacks was buried in an unmarked plot of land in the family cemetery, in Lackstown in Halifax County, Virginia.