The family of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells were taken without her consent during treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, on Thursday filed a lawsuit against a second company, alleging that it has made a fortune by using them to make to make proprietary products.
Lacks, 31, of Turner Station, died in 1951. Her cells became the first in the world to replicate outside her body, which many considered a medical miracle. HeLa cells, as they were named, supported early vaccine development and other scientific advancements.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore against Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical, which is located in Novato, California, and focuses on developing treatments for serious rare and ultrarare genetic diseases. The complaint contains one count of unjust enrichment.
“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,” said Ben Crump, an attorney representing the Lacks family, in a statement.
“Like anyone else, Black people have the right to control their bodies,” he added. “Just as Ultragenyx takes advantage of Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cell line, they also take advantage of vulnerable individuals with rare illnesses by price gouging them for essential treatments.”
Hopkins researchers discovered that the cells doctors had secretly sampled from Lacks’ cervix were capable of regenerating outside the body. They then shared them for free. Scientists have published more than 110,000 research papers involving HeLa cells, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The lawsuit asserts that Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical has reaped huge profits from Lacks’ cells. But the company neither sought nor received permission from her family to use them “as if they were nothing more than a machine or a dairy cow,” according to the complaint.
The move comes less than two weeks after Lacks’ family reached a settlement in a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific, a biotechnology company in Waltham, Massachusetts. The terms are confidential.
Crump and Chris Ayers, another member of the Lacks family’s legal team, stated that they planned to file additional cases.
“Stay tuned,” Ayers said. “The fight against those who profit and choose to profit off of the deeply unethical and unlawful history and origins of the HeLa cells will continue.”
Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical could not immediately be reached for comment.