May 24, 2024

Family Of Henrietta Lacks Reach Historic Settlement Over Her “Stolen” Cells

The family of Henrietta Lacks has reportedly reached a historic settlement with a biotech company that allegedly profited from the use of her cells, which were taken from Lacks decades ago without her consent or knowledge. 

The legal action started in October 2021 when the living relatives of Henrietta Lacks filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific in the US District Court for the District of Baltimore. They alleged the biotech company had profited for decades by manufacturing, developing, and selling biotech products using cells taken from Lacks, collected years earlier without her consent.

The Lacks v. Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. case has now been settled, as reported by The Baltimore Banner, although the settlement terms will remain confidential. Some more details of the agreement are expected to be revealed at a news conference in Baltimore on Tuesday, August 1, which would have been Lacks’ 103rd birthday.

“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,” Ben Crump and Chris Seeger, the attorneys who filed the case on the family’s behalf, said in a statement to the news website. 

Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer aged 31 on October 4, 1951 – but some of her cells still live on today. Shortly before her untimely death, a Johns Hopkins physician took a sample of cervical cells from Lacks without her knowledge during an assessment for cervical cancer.

It was noticed that her cells continued to rapidly reproduce long after cells from almost all other samples would die off outside their host. This, they realized, had the potential to be the source of cost-effective and easy-to-use cells that expanded their ability to conduct research.

They became known as the “HeLa immortal cell line” and they proved to be an invaluable tool for biomedical research. 

It’s estimated that over 50 million tons of her cells have been produced and used in over 60,000 scientific studies. For instance, HeLa cells were used by Jonas Salk to test the first polio vaccine in the 1950s. They have also been widely used in the study of viruses, cancer, and genetics. HeLa cells were even sent to space in the 1960s onboard the Soviet satellite Sputnik-6.

However, all of this was achieved without the knowledge or consent of Lacks, sparking a huge ethical debate. Along with raising serious concerns about consent and ownership of genetic material, the recently settled lawsuit also argues that the case highlights medical inequalities that still exist in the Black community. 

“The Henrietta Lacks family lawsuit filed against Thermo Fisher Scientific claims that the treatment of Lacks and historic treatment of African Americans in the medical system has resulted in massive financial gains for the pharmaceutical industry and medical system,” Seeger Weiss LLP, one of the law firms representing the Lacks family, said on their website.

“The family and representatives have claimed that Henrietta Lacks HeLa Cell developments are an example of injustice the African American community has been subject, with to decades of medical mistreatment and experimentation. Often this has included dangerous, involuntary, and non-therapeutic experimentation which has been practiced and documented since 19th century,” it added.

The Lacks family attorneys have indicated that this settlement is just the tip of the iceberg and there could potentially be dozens more lawsuits involving the use of HeLa cells.

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