Second Henrietta Lacks family lawsuit can proceed against pharmaceutical company, judge rules

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BALTIMORE — The family of Henrietta Lacks can proceed with a lawsuit against a pharmaceutical company that uses the Baltimore County woman’s “immortal” cell line to develop medical treatments, a federal judge ruled Monday.

U.S. District Judge Deborah L. Boardman rejected a motion to dismiss the complaint against Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical, the second company to face a lawsuit for its use of the HeLa cell line named for Lacks.

Her cells can reproduce endlessly in a lab, making them important tools for researchers. But the tissue samples that produced the cell line were taken without Lacks’ knowledge or consent when she sought treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital over 70 years ago.

Lacks died in 1951, but her cells lived on, contributing to extraordinary medical breakthroughs and profits for the companies that used them for research purposes, according to the lawsuits brought by her family. The “unjust enrichment” suits seek compensation for her surviving family members, led by grandson Ron Lacks, and to halt the use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells without her estate’s permission.

Monday’s ruling in the case against Ultragenyx is notable because it is the first Lacks family lawsuit to survive a motion to dismiss.

The family’s previous suit against a company called Thermo Fisher Scientific settled for an undisclosed amount in August. That case, which Boardman also adjudicated, ended before the judge ruled on a motion to dismiss.

Boardman emphasized that her decision Monday is just a first step in a case that is still in the early stages of litigation: “Today, the court reaches one modest conclusion about this dispute: If what (Ron) Lacks alleges is true, it is plausible that Ultragenyx is liable to Lacks for unjust enrichment,” she wrote.

The judge did not decide whether the Lacks family waited too long to file their lawsuit, which was a key point of disagreement in the Thermo Fisher lawsuit. Under Maryland law, a person has to sue for unjust enrichment within three years of first learning of something that might be grounds for a lawsuit.

Boardman determined that it is too early for Ultragenyx to use the statute of limitations as a defense against the Lacks family’s claims, but the issue likely will come up again later.

In a statement Monday, attorneys for the family applauded Boardman’s ruling.

“For too long, pharmaceutical companies like Ultragenyx have profited from Henrietta Lacks’ cells taken without her knowledge or consent, reaping enormous profits while her family received nothing,” said Christoper Seeger and Christopher Ayers, partners at Seeger Weiss, in a joint statement. “This case is about more than financial restitution; it is about restoring dignity to Henrietta Lacks, delivering long overdue justice, and preventing such exploitation from happening again.”

A lawyer for Ultragenyx could not be reached immediately for comment Monday afternoon.