BALTIMORE (AP) — More than 70 years after doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cells without her knowledge, an attorney for her descendants said they had reached a settlement with a biotechnology company They sued in 2021and accused its leaders of reaping billions of dollars from a racist healthcare system.
Tissue taken from the black woman’s tumor before she died of cervical cancer was the first human cell to be successfully cloned. Since then, HeLa cells have been reproduced indefinitely and have become a cornerstone of modern medicine. They have enabled countless scientific and medical innovations, including the development of the polio vaccine, genetic mapping, and even COVID-19 vaccines.
Despite this incalculable impact, the Lacks family had never been compensated.
Physicians harvested Lacks cells in 1951, well before the introduction of the consent procedures used in medicine and scientific research today. However, her family’s attorneys argued that Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. of Waltham, Massachusetts continued to commercialize the results long after the origins of the HeLa cell line became known.
The settlement agreement came after closed-door negotiations that lasted all Monday at the federal courthouse in Baltimore. Several members of the Lacks family were involved in the talks.
Attorney Ben Crump, representing the Lacks family, announced the settlement late Monday. He said the terms of the agreement were confidential.
“The parties are pleased that they have found a way to resolve this matter out of court and will have no further comment on the settlement,” Crump said in a statement.
It was discovered that HeLa cells have unique properties. While most cell samples died shortly after being removed from the body, their cells survived and thrived in the lab. This extraordinary quality allowed their cells to be cultivated indefinitely – they became known as the first immortalized human cell line – and allowed scientists everywhere to reproduce studies using identical cells.
The remarkable science — and the impact it had on the Lacks family, some of whom suffered from chronic illnesses without health insurance — was documented in a Rebecca Skloot bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, in which Oprah Winfrey portrayed her daughter for an HBO -Movie about history.
Lacks was 31 when she died and was buried in an unmarked grave. She was a poor tobacco farmer from Southern Virginia and was raising five children when doctors discovered a tumor in her cervix and saved a sample of her cancer cells taken during a biopsy.
Johns Hopkins said it never sold or profited from the cell lines, but many companies have patented ways to use them.
In their complaint, Lacks’ grandchildren and other descendants argued that their treatment highlighted a much larger problem that persists today: racism in the American health care system.
“The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by black people throughout history,” the complaint reads. “Too often the history of medical experimentation in the United States has been the history of medical racism.”
Thermo Fisher argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because it was filed after the statute of limitations had expired, but attorneys for the family said that shouldn’t apply because the company continues to benefit from the cells.
In a statement posted to their website, Johns Hopkins Medicine officials said they reviewed all interactions with Lacks and her family after Skloot’s book was published in 2010. While acknowledging an ethical responsibility, it states that the medical system “never sold or benefited from the discovery or proliferation of HeLa cells and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line,” while acknowledging an ethical responsibility.
Crump, a civil rights attorney, is known for representing victims of police violence and calling for racial justice, particularly in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
Last week, US Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, both Maryland Democrats, introduced legislation to posthumously award Lacks the Congressional Gold Medal.
“Henrietta Lacks changed the course of modern medicine,” Van Hollen said in a statement announcing the bill. “It is high time we recognized their life-saving contribution to the world.”