The family of Henrietta Lacks has hired a prominent civil rights attorney, Ben Crump, who plans to seek compensation for them from big pharmaceutical companies across the country that have made fortunes off medical research with the use of Lacks’ famous cells.
On January 29, 1951, doctors at The Johns Hopkins Hospital took a biopsy from Henrietta Lacks, who had an aggressive form of cervical cancer.
She died eight months later, but the tissue was taken without her consent eventually established the cell line HeLa. The cells were the first immortal human cells to live outside of the body and be grown in culture.
For the next 70 years, cells taken from Lacks are the most widely used human cells in scientific research and helped lead to a multitude of medical treatments and advances, including the COVID-19 vaccine. However, neither Lacks nor her family gave consent.
Now, her descendants seek compensation from big pharmaceutical companies that profited from HeLa cells, and they hired the infamous Crump to help them do so.
Crump has represented several families of the Black Live Matter movement, including George Floyd, Michael Brown and other Black men who have been murdered by police.
According to the Baltimore Sun, Crump and some of Lacks’ descendants, including the oldest surviving son of Henrietta, Lawrence Lacks Sr, 86, appeared at a news conference where Crump spoke about representing the family.
“Never was that more apparent than with the tragedy of how they exploited Henrietta Lacks,” Crump said.
In addition to Crump, the family is also represented by the New York-based trial lawyer Christopher Seeger. Seeger helped win billion-dollar settlements against companies like the producer of the painkiller Vioxx.
“This is the greatest example of corporate theft I’ve seen in my career, and I’ve been pursuing pharmaceutical companies for 25 years,” Seeger said. “They took something from this family and have offered them nothing, yet they’ve gone out and made millions of dollars.”
Seeger said the team plans to file the first lawsuit on October 4; the day Lacks died 70 years ago.