Finally, Henrietta Lacks’ family reach settlement over the use of her stolen cells

Mildred Europa Taylor August 01, 2023
Henrietta Lacks in 1951. Image via NBC News

The family of Henrietta Lacks have reached a settlement in their lawsuit against a biotech company over the use of Lacks’ immortal cells following her death without her permission. The family filed the lawsuit in 2021, demanding compensation for Thermo Fisher Scientific’s use of Lacks’ cells known as “HeLa cells”, which were taken without her permission decades ago and continue to be used for medical research.

The terms of the agreement reached on Monday are confidential, according to attorneys for the family, Ben Crump and Chris Seeger. “Members of the family of Henrietta Lacks and Thermo Fisher have agreed to settle the litigation filed by Henrietta Lacks’ estate, in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The terms of the agreement will be confidential. 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 about the settlement,” the attorneys said in a statement Tuesday.

Thermo Fisher Scientific had wanted to have the case dismissed, arguing that the statute of limitations had passed.

On January 29, 1951, Lacks felt abdominal discomfort in her womb and sought treatment at John Hopkins Hospital. Suffering a hemorrhage, she was tested for the sexually transmitted infection, syphilis. The results returned negative. Her doctor, Howard W. Jones, biopsied the mass on Lacks’ cervix. It was determined that she had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma. 

Lacks was treated using radium tube inserts. She was to come back to the hospital for X-ray follow-up treatments. Unbeknown to Lacks and without her consent, samples were taken from her cervix. The samples were given to George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher and doctor at John Hopkins. One sample was non-cancerous while the other was cancerous.

The cells extracted from Lacks’ cervix later became known as the HeLa immortal cell line; a widely used cell line. The HeLa line is commonly used in scientific research. What is also remarkable about HeLa is that the cells can be used time and time again. Even if the cells are no longer “alive,” a fresh batch can be taken from the original culture of cells. On August 8, 1951, Lacks complained of severe abdominal pain. She was given several blood transfusions and stayed at John Hopkins until her death on October 4, 1951. She died at the age of 31.

In 1952, a vaccination for Polio was developed using the HeLa cells. In 1953, the cells were the first to be successfully cloned. In addition, the cells have been used in gene mapping and further research for various illnesses. There are currently 11,000 patents held for the HeLa cells.

“The family has not received anything from that theft of her cells, and they treated her like a specimen, like a lab rat like she wasn’t human, with no family, no babies, no husband that loved her,” Kimberley Lacks, the granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks, said in 2021 when her family sued pharmaceutical companies that continue to use Lacks’ cells without compensating the family.

The family’s attorneys said that Monday’s agreement paves the way for more lawsuits. 

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: August 1, 2023


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