The family of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells were used without permission to form the basis of decades of scientific research, has reached a settlement with the biotech company Thermo Fisher Scientific.

The cells, known as HeLa cells, were taken from Lacks without her knowledge or consent in 1951 when she was seeking cervical cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore. Doctors discovered that the cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours in the lab instead of dying. They were the first human cells that scientists successfully cloned, and they have been reproduced infinitely ever since. 

Lacks herself died in 1951, but her cells continued to be used after her death in research that led to a series of medical advancements, including in the development of the polio vaccine and in treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, leukemia and Parkinson’s disease. 

Lacks’ family only found out about it decades later. 

Henrietta Lacks.

National Institutes of Health

Lacks’ story reached millions of Americans through the nonfiction bestseller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which was made into an HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey as Lacks’ daughter, Deborah.

In 2021, Lacks’ estate filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific, alleging that the company was mass producing and selling tissue taken from Lacks even after it became well-known that the materials had been taken from her without her consent. The suit was filed exactly 70 years after Lacks’ death. 

“We want to make sure that the family voice is finally heard after 70 years of being ignored,” the prominent civil rights attorney Ben Ben, one of the lawyers representing Lacks’ estate, told CBS News in 2021. “The American pharmaceutical corporations have a shameful history of profiting off the research of using and exploiting Black people and their illnesses and their bodies.”

“Thermo Fisher Scientific has known that HeLa cells were stolen from Ms. Lacks and chose to use her body for profit anyway,” the lawsuit alleged. It has been previously reported that Thermo Fisher Scientific said they generate about $35 billion in annual revenue. In the lawsuit, Lacks’ estate asked that the company “disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks.” The suit also sought an order stopping the company from using the HeLa cells without the estate’s permission. 

The terms of Tuesday’s settlement were not made public, but Crump said in a news conference that both parties were “pleased” to have resolved the matter outside of court, CBS Baltimore reported

Tuesday would have been Lacks’ 103rd birthday, Crump noted. 

“I can think of no better present… than to give her family some measure of respect for Henrietta Lacks, some measure of dignity for Henrietta Lacks, and most of all some measure of justice for Henrietta Lacks,” Crump said.


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