In 1951 doctors took tissue from a Black woman without her consent. In the decades that followed they contributed to major medical breakthroughs. Now her family has won a settlement from a company they say profited unfairly.
A family in the United States has settled a case against a biotechnology company that they say profited unjustly from the cells of their grandmother, a Black woman from Baltimore who died in 1951.
Eight months before her death, Henrietta Lacks started treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Her doctor took a tissue sample from her tumor without her knowledge. This sample was sent to a lab at the hospital that was trying to grow human cells for medical research, something scientists had been trying to do for years.
Most of the time, the samples would die within a few days, but Henrietta Lacks’s cells kept living and dividing, doubling within 24 hours. Her cells became the first ever “immortal cell line” to be created from human tissue.
Immortal cell lines can live indefinitely in a petri dish, which makes them incredibly useful for scientific testing. The one belonging to Henrietta Lacks, called HeLa, has since been used to develop vaccines for polio, HPV and Covid-19; drugs for cancer and Parkinson’s disease and to advance fertility treatment. According to Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, her cells were “one of the most important things to happen to medicine”.
But her family was not told how her cells were being used and only found out two decades after her death. By then, they were already fuelling medical advances around the world and making some companies lots of money.
Lacks’s family had not seen any financial reward for the substantial legacy of her cells until earlier this month, when a settlement was reached between the family and Thermo Fisher Scientific. The company sells a range of products derived from HeLa cells and the family’s lawyer argued that they ought to have shared their profits with the Henrietta Lacks estate. The settlement of this case may lead to similar claims against other companies.
For the family it represented justice for their grandmother, who they say was a victim of medical racism. Her grandson, Alfred Lacks-Carter, told CBS news: “People know what happened to Henrietta Lacks was wrong, and we’re here together to make it right.”