Judge Rules That Henrietta Lacks Family's Lawsuit Can Move Forward

The estate is suing pharmaceutical company Ultragenyx over the use of HeLa cells which was taken from Lacks without her knowledge in 1951.

The estate of Henrietta Lacks can move forward with their lawsuit against pharmaceutical company Ultragenyx in their ongoing fight to be compensated for the unlawful use of HeLa cells that are the foundation of many advances in modern medicine, CBS News reports.

On Monday (May 20), U.S. District Judge Deborah Boardman denied Ultragenyx's motion to dismiss the case noting that the estate had “plausibly claimed that Ultragenyx wrongly profited from its research using the "immortal" HeLa cell line.”

"HeLa cells’ impact on medical research is unassailable," Ultragenyx argued in its motion to dismiss the case. "But Plaintiff has sued the wrong defendant, using an invalid legal theory, in pursuit of 'huge profits' that do not exist."

Boardman ruled in favor of the plaintiffs believing that their case was strong enough to proceed.

"Ultragenyx asks this Court to find that its acquisition and use of HeLa cells is too remote from the seizure of cells from Henrietta Lacks for Lacks to state a claim for unjust enrichment," Boardman said. "That is not the law."

Christopher Ayers and Christopher Seeger, the family’s attorneys, expressed their gratitude for the historic ruling in a joint statement.

"We applaud Judge Boardman’s historic ruling, which allows our unjust enrichment claims to proceed and acknowledges the deep injustices that Henrietta Lacks and her family have endured,” the statement read.

"To be able to represent the family and be able to move forward and in litigation against companies that continue to profit off of Henrietta Lacks is incredibly important, and a milestone," Ayers added. 

Lacks, who suffered from cancer, sought medical treatment at John Hopkins Hospital in 1951. Without her knowledge, Lacks’ HeLa cells were cut from her cervix during a cancer treatment procedure. The cell line was “the first to survive and reproduce indefinitely in lab conditions.” Lacks’ cells have been the source of medical advances such as the polio vaccine, HIV/AIDS treatment, COVID-19 vaccines, and cosmetic breakthroughs.

Sadly, Lacks died at age 31, just a few months after her initial cancer treatments.

Until 2011, Lacks’ story was almost forgotten until “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot was published. Oprah Winfrey starred in the film of the same name in 2017.

Following years of legal battles, Ultragenyx is just one of several pharmaceutical companies that the estate has sued. In 2023, the estate settled a lawsuit brought against Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Ayers noted that the ruling sets a new precedent for ethics to which the medical and science worlds should adhere.

 "This is really the first step of holding the scientific community accountable for its continued misuse of Mrs. Lacks' cells and perpetuating business conduct that occurred over 70 years ago,” Ayers said.

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