On August 10th, 2023, the family of Henrietta Lacks, represented by Seeger Weiss partners Chris Seeger and Chris Ayers along with nationally renowned civil rights attorney Ben Crump, filed a lawsuit against Novato, California-based Ultragenyx in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, alleging the multibillion-dollar biopharmaceutical corporation unjustly enriched itself by profiting from Mrs. Lacks’s genetic material without her family’s consent.
“The enduring legacy of Henrietta Lacks should be one of acknowledgment, respect, and restitution, not continued exploitation by companies like Ultragenyx,” said Seeger. “Their actions stand as a grim reminder of America’s history of medical racism and the urgent need to rectify these past wrongs. Our lawsuit aims to help the Lacks family reclaim their ancestor’s story and receive the justice and compensation they deserve.”
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in the racially segregated ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Under the guise of cancer treatment, doctors surgically extracted tissue samples from Mrs. Lacks without her knowledge or consent. These stolen cells were cultivated into the first immortal human cell line, known as HeLa cells, and have played a pivotal role in countless pioneering medical discoveries, from the polio vaccine to gene-mapping and in vitro fertilization.
Despite being well aware of the grossly unethical origins of the HeLa cell line, Ultragenyx chose to treat Henrietta Lacks’s body as a manufacturing tool, utilizing her cells as a factory for adeno-associated virus (AAV) vector-based gene therapy products without seeking consent from her family. The company’s continued exploitation of Mrs. Lacks’s stolen cells to reap massive profits denies her and her family basic human dignity.
“Ultragenyx’s decision to profit from Henrietta Lacks’s cells without permission from her family is a glaring example of a biotech company violating ethical boundaries for financial gain,” said Ayers. “Ultragenyx understands—indeed, acknowledges on its own website—that the HeLa cells it cultivates for profit today were stolen from Mrs. Lacks. The company’s business is nothing more than a perpetuation of this theft.”
One of the nation’s preeminent plaintiffs’ law firms, Seeger Weiss is best known for multidistrict mass torts and class actions in both state and federal court. From offices in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, the firm has represented over 10,000 individuals, organizations, and states and local municipalities across the U.S. that have been injured or defrauded on a massive scale.