The experiment was set up to test the then new drug penicillin as a therapy for stopping the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases.
It remained a secret until 2010 when an academic discovered the papers, since when the three institutions have been fighting legal action by claiming that the protection of foreign corporations from lawsuits in the US for alleged human rights abuses should be extended to them.
But in a recent ruling, a federal judge has decided that the same protection does not cover US corporations and has allowed the $1bn lawsuit to proceed. It has been filed by the 444 victims or their surviving relatives.
The complaint cites that several Hopkins and Rockefeller Foundation doctors were involved in the experiment along with four executives from Bristol Laboratories and Squibb Institute, which later amalgamated to become Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Johns Hopkins has apologised for its involvement in the experiment, but the Rockefeller Foundation—a non-profit group that gives grants for humanitarian causes around the world—denies any wrongdoing. The drug company has refused to comment.