The family of Henrietta Lacks has reached a settlement with Thermo Fisher Scientific, a science and technology services company that profited by selling Lacks’s cells. But the agreement is likely not the last and is already prompting debate over the use of human specimens in scientific research.
The cells, known as HeLa cells, were taken from Lacks without her permission in 1951 while she was undergoing cervical cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The cell samples were then sent to a cancer researcher at the hospital who discovered that, unlike most cells, they could be reproduced indefinitely in Petri dishes.
This unique property proved to be invaluable to scientists, as it allowed them to easily grow and study human cells in the lab. Although Lacks, a Black woman, died 8 months later, her “immortal” cells live on and have contributed to scientific breakthroughs including the development of polio and COVID-19 vaccines. The cells also serve as the foundation of “a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials,” wrote journalist Rebecca Skloot on the cover of her 2010 best-selling book, which publicized Lacks’s story.
But Lacks’s family was never compensated for the use of her cells. Thermo Fisher, for example, “has made staggering profits by using the HeLa cell line—all while Ms. Lacks’ Estate and family haven’t seen a dime,” the lawsuit, filed in 2021, says.
The suit lists several HeLa-related product lines that are currently for sale on Thermo Fisher’s website, such as peptide and RNA standards. “The company also offers contract development and manufacturing services to other biotechnology companies,” the lawsuit says.
Thermo Fisher initially tried to get the case dismissed, claiming that the statute of limitations had expired. However, the two parties finally reached an out-of-court agreement on Aug. 1, which would have been Lacks’s 103rd birthday.
“I can think of no better present on what would have been Henrietta Lacks’s 103rd birthday than to give her family some measure of respect for Henrietta Lacks, some measure of dignity for Henrietta Lacks, and most of all some measure of justice for Henrietta Lacks,” the family’s attorney, Ben Crump, said during a press conference announcing the settlement.
According to Thermo Fisher and the family’s legal counsel, the terms of the agreement will remain confidential.
It’s likely that Thermo Fisher will not be the only company facing legal trouble for using HeLa cells. Merck KGaA’s MilliporeSigma unit, for example, also sells the cells. “The fight against those who profit and chose to profit off of the deeply unethical and unlawful history and origins of the HeLa cells will continue,” attorney Chris Ayers said during the press conference.
In the meantime, the settlement will likely trigger a larger discussion on the use of biospecimens in research, says Carrie Wolinetz, a science policy specialist at the government relations firm Lewis-Burke Associates. Today, doctors need to notify their patients when their cells or tissues are collected for clinical reasons, but patients don’t have to be informed if their tissues are used for medical research down the road, as long as the samples are anonymized, Wolinetz explains.
“Offering people the chance to say, ‘No, you can’t use my tissue for research,’ is probably something worth considering,” she says.
The Henrietta Lacks lawsuit can also serve as a lesson for researchers in other fields of science. “It is easy to just absorb the culture of science and not think about the tools and methodologies we use every day,” Wolinetz says. The case “illustrates why it’s always important to stop and think about what we’re doing, what we’re using,” she says.
This story was updated on Aug. 8, 2023, to correct the name of the hospital where Henrietta Lacks underwent cancer treatment. It is Johns Hopkins Hospital, not John Hopkins Hospital.