Family Of Henrietta Lacks Settles With Biotech Company

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More than 70 years after doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cells without her knowledge, a lawyer for her descendants said they have reached a settlement with a biotechnology company they sued in 2021, accusing its leaders of reaping billions of dollars in a racist medical system, NBC News reported.

Tissue taken from the Black woman’s tumor before she died of cervical cancer became the first human cells to be successfully cloned. Reproduced infinitely ever since, the HeLa cells have become a cornerstone of modern medicine, enabling countless scientific and medical innovations, including the development of the polio vaccine, genetic mapping, and even Covid-19 vaccines.

Despite that incalculable impact, the Lacks family has never been compensated, NBC News reported.

Attorney Ben Crump, who represents the Lacks family, announced the settlement late Monday. He said the terms of the agreement are confidential. “The parties are pleased they were able to find a way to resolve this matter outside of Court and will have no further comment about the settlement,” Crump said in a statement.

According to the website Biography, on August 1, the estate of Henrietta Lacks settled its lawsuit against a Massachusetts biotech company. In a 2021 compliant, Lacks’ family accused Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. of profiting from the HeLa cell line, named after the Black mother of five whose tissue was harvested without her knowledge or consent while she was being treated for cervical cancer. The terms of the settlement were confidential.

Biography also wrote that Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920. She died of cervical cancer in 1951 (at the age of 31). A partial autopsy revealed the cancer had metastasized throughout her body. She was buried in an unmarked grave in her childhood home of Clover, Virginia.

Cells taken from her body without her knowledge were used to form the HeLa cell line, which has been used extensively in medical research since that time. Lacks’ case has sparked legal and ethical debates over the rights of an individual to his or her genetic material and tissue. 

In February of 2010, Johns Hopkins released a statement concerning the cervical samples that were taken from Lacks without her consent:

“Johns Hopkins Medicine sincerely acknowledges the contribution to advances in biomedical research made possible by Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells. It’s important to note that at the time the cells were taken from Mrs. Lacks’ tissue, the practice of obtaining informed consent from cell or tissue donors was essentially unknown among academic medical centers. 

Sixty years ago, there was no established practice of seeking permission to take tissue for scientific research purposes. The laboratory that relied Mrs. Lacks’s cells had arranged many years earlier to obtain such cells from any patient diagnosed with cervical cancer as a way to learn more about a serious disease that took the lives of so many.

Johns Hopkins never patented HeLa cells, nor did it sell them commercially or benefit in a direct financial way. Today, Johns Hopkins and other research-based medical centers consistently obtain consent from those asked to donate tissue or cells for scientific research.”

NBC News also wrote that in their complaint, Lacks’ grandchildren and other descendants argued that her treatment illustrates a much larger issue that persists into the present day: racism inside the American medical 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.”

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