BALTIMORE (AP) — The family of a Maryland woman who unwittingly spurred a research bonanza when her cancer cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 has hired a prominent civil rights lawyer to seek compensation from pharmaceutical companies.
The relatives of Henrietta Lacks have hired Ben Crump, a Florida-based attorney who has represented the families of a number of Black people who have died at the hands of police and vigilantes in recent years. Those clients include the families of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin and Breonna Taylor.
The Baltimore Sun reported Thursday that a lawyer for the Lacks family said a legal team is investigating lawsuits against numerous potential defendants
Cells taken from Lacks have been widely used in biomedical research. The so-called HeLa cells became crucial for key developments in such areas as basic biology, understanding viruses and other germs, cancer treatments, in vitro fertilization and vaccine development.
She became famous in 2010 with publication of Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
As that book relates, Lacks was under anesthesia on an operating table at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore one day in 1951, undergoing treatment for cervical cancer. A researcher had been collecting cervical cancer cells to see if they would grow continuously in the lab. So the surgeon treating Lacks shaved a piece of tissue from her tumor for that project. Nobody had asked Lacks if she wanted to provide cells for the research. She died later that year.
Bioethicists have said taking cells without a patient’s permission was commonly done in those days.