A statue of Henrietta Lacks is unveiled on the 70th anniversary of her death at Royal Fort House in Bristol.

A statue of Henrietta Lacks is unveiled on the 70th anniversary of her death at Royal Fort House in Bristol.

Photo by Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images.

Family of Henrietta Lacks Reach Settlement Over Stolen Immortal ‘HeLa Cells’

The family and descendants of Henrietta Lacks have received an undisclosed settlement over the use of her cells, which were taken decades ago without her permission.

A lawsuit between the family of Henrietta Lacks and biotech company Thermo Fisher Scientific has now been settled. On Tuesday (August 1), The Baltimore Sun reported that Lacks’ descendants alleged that the biotech company benefited for decades from developing, producing and selling biotech products that contained cells stolen from Lacks decades ago without her consent.

Legal action began in October 2021, when the lawsuit was filed in the US District Court for the District of Baltimore. Although details of the settlement are undisclosed, more is expected to be revealed during a news conference on Tuesday, which would have been Lacks’ 103 birthday. On October 4, 1951 at 31 years old, Lacks died of cervical cancer, although some of her cells still live on today. Shortly before her death, a Johns Hopkins physician took a sample of Lacks’ cervical cells without her knowledge or permission during a cervical cancer assessment.

Medical experts at the institution noted that Lacks’ cells had the ability to rapidly reproduce, while cells from other samples would not survive after being taken from their host. To conduct further biomedical research using cost-effective and easy-to-use cells, Lacks’ stolen cells became known as the "HeLa immortal cell line.”

It’s estimated that the HeLa cells have been used in over 60,000 scientific experiments, and more than 50 million tons of Lacks’ cells have been reproduced. Despite its use in tests for the polio vaccine and studies for cancer, viruses and genetics, the HeLa cells continue to be at the center of ethical debate. The lawsuit also highlights medical inequalities that are still present among Black patients.

“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,” stated law firm Seeger Weiss LLP, one of the law firms that represents the Lacks family.

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