Family of Henrietta Lacks Settles with Biotech Company That Used Her Cells

The family of Henrietta Lacks, the Black woman whose cancer cells were taken without consent and used to pioneer numerous medical discoveries, reached a settlement on Monday with a biotechnology company that had used the cells.

In a lawsuit filed in October 2021, descendants of Ms. Lacks, who died decades ago, accused the company, Thermo Fisher Scientific, of selling the cells and trying to secure intellectual property rights on the products the cells were used to help develop without compensating the family or seeking their permission or approval.

The terms of the settlement are confidential, lawyers for both parties said in a statement.

Thermo Fisher, a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, and the legal team for Ms. Lacks’s family released identical statements announcing the settlement.

“The parties are pleased that they were able to find a way to resolve this matter outside of Court and will have no further comment,” the statements said.

Ms. Lacks was being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1951 when a sample of her cells were taken without her knowledge. The cell line named for her, HeLa, became the cornerstone of many medical and scientific innovations, including vaccines for polio and the coronavirus. But Ms. Lacks died that same year, and her family did not know about her contribution to medical science for more than two decades.

On Tuesday, which would have been Ms. Lacks’s 103rd birthday, members of her family gathered at a news conference to celebrate the settlement.

A grandson, Alfred Lacks Carter Jr., said, “it could not have been a more fitting day for her to have justice and for her family to have relief.”

“It was a long fight, over 70 years, and Henrietta Lacks gets her day,” he said.

One of the family’s lawyers, Chris Ayers, suggested that similar lawsuits would follow.

“The fight against those who profit, and chose to profit, off the deeply unethical and unlawful history and origins of the HeLa cells will continue,” he said.

Ms. Lacks, a mother of five, died in October 1951. She was 31.

Eight months earlier, she had learned she had cervical cancer after being admitted to a racially segregated ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Doctors removed a sample of cells from the tumor in her cervix without her knowledge or consent and gave them to a medical researcher at Johns Hopkins University. The researcher found that her cells were the first to reproduce in a laboratory, outside the body.

Most cells die within days, but because Ms. Lacks’s cells continued to multiply, researchers and scientists could use them to do things such as test how the polio virus infects cells and causes disease.

Research using the HeLa cells has led to the development of vaccines treatments for diseases including cancer, Parkinson’s and the flu. The cells have also been used by researchers around the world and have been cited in more than 110,000 scientific publications, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Ms. Lacks’s family was not told about the world-changing discovery and did not find out about the cell line until 1973, according to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a book by Rebecca Skloot that was turned into a movie featuring Oprah Winfrey as Ms. Lacks’s daughter Deborah.

Ms. Lacks’s descendants have said they are proud of her contribution but angry about how she was treated by the medical establishment. These frustrations have been made worse with the commercialization of her cells, they said.

The family’s lawsuit against Thermo Fisher said the company had “made staggering profits by using the HeLa cell line — all while Ms. Lacks’ Estate and family haven’t seen a dime.”

“Thermo Fisher Scientific’s choice to continue selling HeLa cells in spite of the cell lines’ origin and the concrete harms it inflicts on the Lacks family can only be understood as a choice to embrace a legacy of racial injustice embedded in the U.S. research and medical systems,” the lawsuit said.

Thermo Fisher tried to dismiss the case, arguing that the lawsuit was filed after the statute of limitations had expired, The Baltimore Sun reported. Lawyers for the family said the limit should not apply because the company continued to benefit financially from the cells.

Amanda Holpuch is a general assignment reporter. More about Amanda Holpuch

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