The family of Henrietta Lacks has settled their lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific, the company they accused of profiting from the use of Lacks’ cells, commonly referred to as HeLa cells, without the family’s knowledge or permission. On Lacks’ 103rd birthday (August 1), the family and the company released identical statements about the settlement, the terms of which are undisclosed.
In 1951, Lacks, a young African-American woman and mother of five children, died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, MD. Unbeknownst to Lacks and her family, cells were taken from her body and used to fuel biomedical research and advances. The family never received payment for use of the cells or the discoveries or inventions like the cure for polio, mapping of the human genome, creating the field of virology and most recently contributing to the anti-cancer vaccine that cures HPV, a leading cause of cervical cancer.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine:
“Over the past several decades, this cell line has contributed to many medical breakthroughs, from research on the effects of zero gravity in outer space and the development of polio and COVID-19 vaccines, to the study of leukemia, the AIDS virus and cancer worldwide.”
Lacks’ story was made famous by Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 best-selling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which became a HBO feature film in 2017, starring Renée Goldsberry and Oprah Winfrey and directed by George C. Wolfe.
Thermo Fisher Scientific is just one of many companies that “unjustly profited” from the unauthorized use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells. Lawyers for the Lacks family have indicated they may seek compensation from other scientific companies.
This post was written by Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., founder & editor-in-chief of The Burton Wire. Follow Nsenga on social media @Ntellectual.