Descendants of Henrietta Lacks family joined by their new attorneys, renowned civil rights litigator, Ben Crump (center) and pharmaceutical counselor, Christopher Seeger (right). (Courtesy photo)

By Deborah Bailey
Special to the AFRO

It has been close to 70 years since doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took samples of Henrietta Lacks’ cancerous cells without her or her family’s knowledge. Pharmaceutical firms worldwide have generated multi-billion dollar revenues from the use of Lacks’ eternal “HeLa” cell line while members of the Lacks family have not received compensation.

Lacks’ descendants are no longer content with that arrangement. In the sanctuary of the Greater Faith Baptist Church, the family announced they have enlisted national civil rights attorney Ben Crump and Christopher A. Seeger of Seeger Weiss to represent them. “We believe this will be a landmark case and set legal precedent,” Crump said.

“We plan to argue this case not only in the courtroom but in the court of public opinion,” he added.

“We are in uncharted territory,” said Seeger. He has represented clients in cases against corporate giants Johnson and Johnson, Ely Lilly, and Asian pharmaceutical giant, Takeda. Most recently, Seeger served as lead co-council representing retired NFL players in a multi-million-dollar settlement with the NFL related to concussions suffered by former players.

Seeger has recently come under fire for allowing the NFL settlement to advance using the controversial practice of “race norming,” for which he has since apologized. However, Crump expressed confidence that Seeger is the right partner to support the Lacks family’s concerns. “He is no stranger to suing pharmaceutical companies and many others,” Crump said in support of his new partner. “Every major pharmaceutical firm that has used Henrietta Lacks’ cells has reaped untold profits. Chris is one of the best attorneys in the nation to support our cause.”

“This is the greatest example of corporate theft I’ve seen in my career,” Seeger added in reference to the widespread use of and profit from HeLa cells.

Attorney Christopher Seeger speaks to family members and media with Lawrence Lacks (left) and Ben Crump (right). (Courtesy photo)“We are challenging the medical ethos that has justified the exploitation, the abuse, the disrespect and destruction of Black bodies for generations” added Crump.

Lacks’ cells, referred to in the medical community as HeLa cells, were taken from her body without her consent or knowledge in 1951, after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins. It is widely reported that Lacks’ cells are the first immortal cell line in existence, meaning the cells continue to multiply outside of the body.

Members of the Lacks family spoke passionately about reclaiming the narrative and legacy of their mother and grandmother. Kimberly Lacks, reflected on her grandmother’s journey as a Black woman who turned to the medical community in her illness, only to have her body “harvested” for science. “For years, nobody really knew the story of our grandmother, Henrietta Lacks. I sit and think about my grandmother in that hospital room,” Kimberly said. “They treated her like a specimen, like a lab rat…like she wasn’t human.”

For Alfred Carter, grandson of Henrietta Lacks, Crump and Seeger’s willingness to stand up to major pharmaceutical firms was a key element. “I would like to thank our attorneys for taking a stand that no one else has been willing to take against big pharmaceuticals.”

“We’re going to control our own narrative now. We’re here speaking for ourselves,” Carter added. “Pharmaceutical companies, you are on notice.”

Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta Lacks oldest son was a teenager who witnessed the treatment his mother received at Johns Hopkins hospital. Now the family elder at 86, Lawrence Lacks said he is now satisfied his mother’s suffering and sacrifice as well as his family’s suffering for the past 70 years will finally be vindicated. “I am just glad to live to see this process begin at last,” the elder Lacks said.

Crump and Seeger will be prepared to advance their case by October 4, the date marking 70 years since cells were taken from Henrietta Lacks’ body. HeLa cells have contributed to myriad medical and scientific breakthroughs including development of the polio vaccine, the study of leukemia, the AIDS virus, cancer and the human genome. Most recently the HeLa cell line was used in the development of Covid-19 vaccinations.

“We welcome pharmaceutical firms to come forward and do the right thing,” Crump said. “On October 4, we will put forth our lawsuit for these companies. The leadership of this campaign will be the family,” Crump said referring to his method of working with the families of Trayvon Martin, Breanna Taylor and George Floyd. “We now have a cadre of Black lawyers alongside our White allies who will walk together with this family, arguing their case.”

Greater Faith pastor, Dr. Leah White offered a closing reflection that summed up the mood of the afternoon. “Don’t give up on your dreams,” she told the family. “God can do amazing things.”

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