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  • Writer's pictureJamal Saafir

Henrietta Lacks' Descendants Get Closure By Way Of Settlement

As reported by NPR, the family of Henrietta Lacks has reached a settlement with a science and technology company that they say used cells taken without Lacks' consent in the 1950s to develop products it later sold for a profit.

Lacks was being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University in 1951 when doctors removed cells from her tumor without her knowledge or permission.

Those cells — now known as HeLa cells — had extraordinary properties that allowed them to be reproduced without limit, and have since been used for diverse scientific breakthroughs, such as developing the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, advancements in cancer treatment, AIDS research, cloning and stem cell studies, along with COVID-19 vaccines.

Lacks' descendants have contended that she and other Black women were "preyed on" by a group of white physicians in the 1950s and that her family was never compensated for the use of her genetic material, which made such lucrative scientific advancements achievable.

"Not only were the HeLa cells derived from Henrietta Lacks — the HeLa cells are Henrietta Lacks," Ben Crump, an attorney for the family, said during a news conference Tuesday.

Lacks’ family filed a federal lawsuit in 2021 against the company, arguing it is knowingly profiting from Lacks’ tissue sample and cell line.

Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts-based science and technology firm, previously asked a judge to dismiss the case, arguing in part that the plaintiff's claims were too old.

In nearly identical statements, the company and attorneys for Lacks' family said 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" on the settlement.

The terms of the settlement agreement are confidential.

Attorneys for Thermo Fisher Scientific said in an earlier court filing that only a "handful" of the many products that the company sells are "HeLa-related."

Lacks' life was the center of a popular nonfiction book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and later a film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey.

On its website, Johns Hopkins University says that it never profited from Lacks' cells and that, though the collection and use of her cells was "an acceptable and legal practice in the 1950s, such a practice would not happen today without the patient's consent."

Ben Crump, one of the attorneys representing the family, said he hopes the settlement will help to further educate others about Lacks’ legacy.

“This Black woman gave so much to the world, it’s good to give her a present back on her birthday,” Crump said.

Speaking at Tuesday's news conference, Alfred Carter, one of Lacks' grandsons, called it a "day that will go down in history." He noted that Tuesday August 1st, was Henrietta Lacks' 103rd birthday.

"It couldn't have been a more fitting day for her to have justice, for her family to have relief," he said.

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