In 1950, a young woman named Henrietta Lacks shocked the medical world at John Hopkins Hospital when a large tumor was found on her cervix. As the young mother of five underwent medical treatment for her rare cervical cancer at the time, Dr. Gey, a virus researcher at the facility, found something particularly fascinating about Lacks’s cancer cells. Cells from previous patients would die outside of the body, Lacks’ cells continued to grow and duplicate rapidly. Doctors would go on to dub the unique cells “HeLa” cells. Lacks’s remarkable cells were building blocks that lead to major medical breakthroughs in medicine including advancements in vaccines, cancer treatments and were even used to test the effects of radiation and poisons. While Lacks has undeniably saved lives almost 70 years after her death, her family says her precious cells were taken without her or their consent.
Lacks’s living descendants have now come together and called on civil rights attorney Ben Crump to help file a major lawsuit against nearly 100 pharmaceutical companies who have been using the HeLa Cells without their permission. The suit which is being filed on behalf of Lacks’ eldest son Lawrence Lacks Sr. and several great-grandchildren, feel as though the companies should provide financial compensation if they continue to use them for medical research.
Crump issued a statement detailing more about the family’s difficult decision to take legal action:
“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,” he explained.
“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.”
Lacks’s HeLa cells debate has raised concern over the years about patient privacy and consent in the medical community. The Common Rule was adopted into law in 1981 regarding biomedical and behavioral research involving human subjects. The law required doctors to inform patients if their medical cases would be used for further research and ensured that their identities would remain anonymous during the process.
John Hopkins argued that at the time there were no consent policies in place and that while they used the cells for research they did not patent or own the rights to Lacks’s cell. However, the battle for the medical icon’s rights continues to be an ongoing struggle for her family.