Lawyers representing Henrietta Lacks’ family announced a settlement Tuesday with biotech company Thermo Fisher Scientific decades after doctors took cervical cells from Lacks without her knowledge to use them in scientific research.
Attorneys Ben Crump and Chris Seeger announced the settlement in a statement released on what would have been Lacks’ 103rd birthday.
“The terms of the agreement will be confidential,” the statement read. “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.”
Tuesday’s settlement announcement came one day after both sides were scheduled to meet for a settlement conference.
In 1951, doctors cut away tissue samples from an unknowing Lacks as she was under anesthesia for treatment of a malignant tumor on her cervix. She died later that year of cervical cancer. Her cells, however, lived on.
Unlike most cell samples, which die shortly after being removed from the body, Lacks’ cells could reproduce indefinitely in laboratory settings. Her cells became the first “immortal cell line,” identified by the first letters of Lacks’ name as the HeLa cell line. Researchers have used the line to develop several medical innovations, including the polio vaccine, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.
Lacks’ story was chronicled in the 2011 best-seller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. The book also inspired an HBO movie of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne.
In 2021, Lacks’ descendants filed suit against Thermo Fisher, accusing the company of unjust enrichment for its continued sale of HeLa cells despite knowing that they came from a cell sample that was taken without consent. The cells were taken from Lacks while she was being treated in a segregated ward for Black patients at John Hopkins Hospital, where white doctors took tissue samples without the consent of their patients, according to the Lacks family’s lawsuit.
The family accused Thermo Fisher of choosing “to embrace a legacy of racial injustice embedded in the US research and medical systems,” noting that the company “mass-produces and sells Mrs. Lacks’ bodily tissue for its own profit without permission of Mrs. Lacks’ Estate.”
“To this day, Thermo Fisher Scientific cultivates and sells HeLa cells in multiple product lines to buyers across the globe,” they said in the lawsuit.
More lawsuits will be forthcoming for companies “who profit and choose to profit off the deeply unethical and unlawful history and origin of the HeLa cells,” Lacks family attorney Chris Ayers said at a news conference on Tuesday.
“The HeLa cells were not derived from Henrietta Lacks. They are Henrietta Lacks,” he said. “Her cells live today and those who choose to sell (and) mass produce (them) without (the family’s) permission or consent, without compensation to the family, well, we’ll see them in court.”
Family members hailed the settlement on Tuesday, which was long sought by Lacks’ descendants.
“It couldn’t have been a more fitting day for her to have justice, for her family to have relief,” said Lacks’ grandson, Alfred Lacks Carter Jr. “It was a long fight — over 70 years — and Henrietta Lacks gets her day.”