BALTIMORE (WJZ) — The family of Henrietta Lacks is suing Johns Hopkins Medicine for using Lacks’ blood cells without her permission 66 years ago.
For years, Henrietta’s oldest son – along with his son – say they have been turned down by attorneys who have declined to help them because of the statute of limitation on the case. They now have an attorney who has agreed to help and take on John Hopkins.
The stories of Henrietta Lacks often surround her blood cells used by doctors to help create many medical advances for more than 60 years.
But to her oldest son, Lawrence, she is just mom.
“I remember she was very strict and she was a very loving mother,” said Lawrence Lacks.
At the age of 15, his world changed when his mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
“I didn’t know what it was all about,” said Lacks. “I [knew] I would have to stay home most of the time to take care of my brothers and sisters, because my father was taking her back and forth to Johns Hopkins all the time.”
Within a year, Henrietta Lacks died, but her legacy would live on, not just with her family, but in the field of medicine.
Doctors at Johns Hopkins found that Henrietta’s cells were a type of “immortal cell line” that would later go on to help develop vaccines for many diseases, such at polio.
It wasn’t until 2010, with the publishing of a book about Henrietta and her HeLa cells, that family members found out what had been going on for nearly 50 years.
“Who wouldn’t want their loved ones to have a cure for this or that,” said Ron Lacks, Henrietta’s grandson. “I mean, everybody was on board with that.”
In a statement responding to Lacks’ family’s claims, Johns Hopkins says in part:
“Johns Hopkins Medicine celebrates and honors the incredible contribution to advances in biomedical research made possible by Henrietta Lacks.”
“Johns Hopkins never patented HeLa cells, and therefore does not own rights to the HeLa cell line. Johns Hopkins also did not sell or profit from the discovery or distribution of Hela cells.”
Lacks’ family attorney, Francis Lanasa, thinks this goes beyond the money.
“Fundamentally, it’s someone took someone else’s property, and they’ve continued to use that property to this day,” said Lanasa. “It’s our understanding that the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and other entities have given Hopkins grants in the terms of hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep doing the research, so they have benefited financially by this.”
“That’s why we want to open our own foundation so we can get recognition for helping others,” said Ron Lacks. “You want to take control of your grandmother’s legacy.”