August 14, 2023

Henrietta Lacks’ Family Files A 2nd Lawsuit Against Pharmaceutical Company

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks’ family is suing a second company for unjustly profiting from her cells.

Lacks was a Black mother of five who died of cervical cancer in October 1951 at 31.

Following a tumor biopsy, doctors saved a sample of her cancer cells without telling her and passed them on to a medical researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

Although most cells die quickly in the lab, Lacks’ continued to multiply and didn’t age. These “immortal” cells were named HeLa (after her first and last name) and were sent to labs worldwide.

Over this time, 50 million tonnes of Lacks’ cells have been reproduced and profited from.

Earlier this month, her family finally settled with Thermo Fisher Scientific, a biotech company allegedly profiting from Lack’s cells.

A Second Lawsuit

A second lawsuit has been filed against a biopharmaceutical corporation Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical for using HeLa cells to produce adeno-associated virus vector-based (AAV) gene therapy products.

The suit alleges that Ultragenyx made a conscious choice to sell and mass-produce the living tissue of Henrietta Lacks.

“The retrieval of her tissue is considered part of a conspiracy to harvest tissue for research from Black women without their knowledge or consent in racially segregated wards throughout the 1950s,” the suit reads.

According to the complaint, Ultragenyx seeks intellectual property rights to these products, claiming Lacks’ genetic material for its pecuniary gain.

This happened despite them allegedly knowing that the HeLa cells were stolen from Lacks.

“Ultragenyx’s choice to continue utilizing HeLa cells despite the cell line’s origin and the concrete harm it inflicts on the Lacks family can only be understood as a choice to embrace a legacy of racial injustice embedded in the U.S. research and medical systems,” Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents the Lacks estate, said in a statement. 

Co-counsel for the lawsuit, Christopher Seeger, added, “Their actions stand as a grim reminder of America’s history of medical racism and the urgent need to rectify these past wrongs.”

“Our lawsuit aims to help the Lacks family reclaim their ancestor’s story and receive the justice and compensation they deserve.”

Sara Keenan

Tech Reporter at POCIT. Following her master's degree in journalism, Sara cultivated a deep passion for writing and driving positive change for Black and Brown individuals across all areas of life. This passion expanded to include the experiences of Black and Brown people in tech thanks to her internship experience as an editorial assistant at a tech startup.