The family of Henrietta Lacks reached a settlement late Monday night with a biotech company accused of profiting from Lacks’ “immortal” cell line, bringing an end to a closely watched case that raised questions about modern medicine’s responsibility for decades-old injustices.
The terms of the settlement are confidential.
The family’s lawyers pledged future legal action against companies that continue to make money selling products derived from the “HeLa” cell line named for Lacks.
“If they can profit today, well, they can provide compensation today,” said Christopher Ayers, one of the family’s lawyers.
The Lacks estate, represented by her grandson, Ron L. Lacks, sued Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. in October 2021 over its use of the HeLa cell line, which was created using cells that were taken without Lacks’ consent in 1951.
The family was also represented by Ben Crump, a Florida civil rights lawyer who is known for representing the families of Black people killed by police.
In a statement about the settlement, Crump and another lawyer for the family, Christopher Seeger, said: “Members of the family of Henrietta Lacks and Thermo Fisher have agreed to settle the litigation filed by Henrietta Lacks’ Estate, in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The terms of the agreement will be confidential. 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.”
Members of the family gathered Tuesday to celebrate the settlement on what would have been Lacks’ 103rd birthday.
“It couldn’t have been a more fitting day for her to have justice, for her family to have relief,” said Alfred Lacks Carter, another grandson.
The HeLa cell line has contributed to countless medical breakthroughs, including the development of the polio and COVID-19 vaccines. Lacks’ were the first human cells to survive and replicate outside of a body, which made them useful for researchers working in laboratory settings.
But the cells were taken from Lacks, a Black woman from Baltimore County, without her knowledge or consent while she received treatment for cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. She and her family did not benefit from her contributions to medical research; Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951.
After the release of a bestselling book about Lacks’ story in 2010, Johns Hopkins Medicine said that it reviewed its interactions with Lacks and her family and found that it could have done more to keep family members informed. Hopkins has maintained that it did not profit off the cells.
The lawsuit against Thermo Fisher claimed that the company improperly profited off the cells despite their unethical origins. The family asked for a permanent order that would block the company from using Lacks’ cells without permission from her estate, and for a constructive trust to benefit her family.
Thermo Fisher argued that it did not know about the origin of the cells when it bought them, and asked a federal judge to throw out the case based on a three-year statute of limitations.
The complaint was brought more than a decade after the publication of a bestselling book that revealed the history of the HeLa cell line, making the statute of limitations question the most challenging issue facing the family’s lawsuit.
A motion to dismiss the lawsuit had been pending before U.S. District Judge Deborah L. Boardman for several months
The Daily Record first reported Thursday that the case had been referred for settlement talks. Magistrate Judge J. Mark Coulson held a settlement conference in Baltimore Monday morning.