Biotechnology, laboratory equipment company Thermo Fisher Scientific has reached a settlement with the estate of Henrietta Lacks, whose descendants “accused [the company] of reaping billions of dollars from a racist medical system.”
While terms of the settlement are confidential, Ben Crump one of the attorneys for Lacks’ family, said, “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 settlement was announced Tuesday, October 1, during a press conference on what would have been Lacks’ 103rd birthday. Renowned civil rights attorney Crump stated “We did it – and what a birthday present today.”
Lacks’ life story and legacy became a household name after Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” became a bestseller, followed up by a feature film starring Oprah Winfrey in 2017 on HBO.
When doctors at Johns Hopkins were treating Lacks for cervical cancer in 1951, they cut tissue samples from cervix without her knowledge and consent. They “discovered that the cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours in the lab instead of dying.” Talk about Black Girl Cell Magic!
These cells, now known as HeLa cells, “were the first human cells that scientists successfully cloned, and they have been reproduced infinitely ever since.” Although Lacks died of the disease at the age of 31, her cells would go on to live forever.
Not only were they everlasting, HeLa cells would also become a lynchpin “of modern medicine, enabling countless scientific and medical innovations, including the development of the polio vaccine, genetic mapping and even COVID-19 vaccines,” as well as cancer, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, and leukemia treatments. HeLa cells were also used to “research the effects of radiation on human cells and develop a treatment for sickle-cell anemia.”
But the worst part was that Lacks’ family had no idea. They wouldn’t find out about their ancestor’s contributions to the medical field until decades later, and they had never received compensation.
John Hopkins has stated that the institution “has never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line;” however, “many companies have patented ways of using them.”
In 2021, “Lacks’ estate sued Thermo Fisher in Baltimore federal court…asserting her family had ‘not seen a dime’ of money that Thermo Fisher made from cultivating the ‘HeLa’ line of cells that originated from tissue taken without Lacks’ consent during a medical procedure in 1951.”
With their lawsuit, Lacks’ estate argued that the treatment of their ancestor is indicative of a larger issue that still persists to this day: “racism inside the U.S. medical system.”
The complaint reads in part, “The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history…Too often, the history of medical experimentation in the United States has been the history of medical racism.”
While Thermo Fisher did argue the case should have been dismissed due to the expiration of the statute of limitations, attorneys for the Lacks family countered: “that shouldn’t apply because the company continues to benefit from the cells.”
Presently, only one of Lacks’ children is still alive, Lawrence Lacks, Sr. His son and her grandson Alfred Lacks Carter Jr. were present at the news conference. “There couldn’t have been a more fitting day for her to have justice, for her family to have relief,” her grandson said. “It was a long fight — over 70 years — and Henrietta Lacks gets her day.”
Last week, Maryland Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin “introduced a bill to posthumously award Lacks the Congressional Gold Medal.” In a statement, Van Hollen said, “Henrietta Lacks changed the course of modern medicine…It is long past time that we recognize her life-saving contributions to the world.”