Henrietta Lacks’ family settles lawsuit with a biotech company that used her cells without consent

In this 2021 photo, attorney Ben Crump, second from left, walks with Ron Lacks, left, Alfred Lacks Carter, third from left, both grandsons of Henrietta Lacks, and other descendants of Lacks, outside the federal courthouse in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark, file)

BALTIMORE — More than 70 years after doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cells without her knowledge, a lawyer for her descendants said they have reached a settlement with a biotechnology company that they accused of reaping billions of dollars from a racist medical system.

Tissue taken from the Black woman’s tumor before she died of cervical cancer became the first human cells to continuously grow and reproduce in lab dishes. HeLa cells went on to become a cornerstone of modern medicine, enabling countless scientific and medical innovations, including the development of the polio vaccine, genetic mapping and even COVID-19 vaccines.


Despite that incalculable impact, the Lacks family had never been compensated.

Lacks’ cells were harvested in 1951, when it was not illegal to do so without a patient’s permission. But lawyers for her family argued that Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., of Waltham, Massachusetts, continued to commercialize the results long after the origins of the HeLa cell line became well known. The company unjustly enriched itself off Lacks’ cells, the family argued in their lawsuit, filed in 2021.

The settlement came after closed-door negotiations that lasted all day Monday inside the federal courthouse in Baltimore. Some of Lacks’ grandchildren were among the family members who attended the talks.

Attorney Ben Crump, who represents the family, announced the settlement late Monday and said the terms are confidential.

In a joint statement, Thermo Fisher representatives and attorneys for the Lacks family said they were pleased to resolve the matter and declined to comment further on the agreement.

A poor tobacco farmer from southern Virginia, Lacks got married and moved with her husband to Turner Station, a historically Black community outside Baltimore. They were raising five children when doctors discovered a tumor in Lacks’ cervix and saved a sample of her cancer cells collected during a biopsy.

Lacks died at age 31 in the “colored ward” of Johns Hopkins Hospital. She was buried in an unmarked grave.

While most cell samples died shortly after being removed from the body, her cells survived and thrived in laboratories. They became known as the first immortalized human cell line because scientists could cultivate them indefinitely, meaning researchers anywhere could reproduce studies using identical cells.

The remarkable science involved — and the impact on the Lacks family, some of whom had chronic illnesses and no health insurance — were documented in a bestselling book by Rebecca Skloot, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which was published in 2010. Oprah Winfrey portrayed her daughter in an HBO movie about the story.

Johns Hopkins said it never sold or profited from the cell lines, but many companies have patented ways of using them.

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