Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken without her knowledge while she was a cancer patient more than 70 years ago and were the first to be successfully cloned.
Cervical cells from Henrietta Lacks, a cancer patient who died more than 70 years ago, are a cornerstone of modern medicine, but her family has never been compensated for the cells taken without her knowledge.
Thermo Fisher Scientific of Waltham, Massachusetts, has settled a lawsuit filed in 2021 by the family, which accused the biotechnology company of making billions of dollars from a racist medical system, the Associated Press reported. The family settled Monday with the company after closed-door negotiations that included some of Lacks’ grandchildren. Terms of the agreement are confidential.
Lacks, originally cared for at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore before dying at age 31 years, has had an immeasurable impact on science as cells taken from her tumor were the first to be successfully cloned. The HeLa cell line, named after Lacks’ first and last name, has led to medication innovations, including development of the polio and COVID-19 vaccines, as well as genetic mapping. But the cells were taken before consent procedures existed.
Unlike most cell samples, the HeLa cells survived and thrived in labs, the AP reported. That made it possible to cultivate Lacks’ cells infinitely. Johns Hopkins has said it never sold and has not profited from the cell lines, but many companies have done so. The hospital system acknowledged an ethical responsibility, but said the medical system “has never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line.”
The family’s lawsuit highlighted a racist medical system. “The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history,” the lawsuit reads. “Too often, the history of medical experimentation in the United States has been the history of medical racism.”
While Thermo Fisher argued the case was past the statute of limitations, the family’s attorneys noted that the company continues to benefit from the cells, the AP reported.