Henrietta Lacks’ family settles lawsuit with a biotech company that used her cells without consent

by Andrew Wright
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Henrietta Lacks’ family has finally reached a settlement with a biotechnology company that utilized her cells without her consent over 70 years ago. Johns Hopkins Hospital took tissue from her cervical tumor without her knowledge, and these cells, known as HeLa cells, became instrumental in numerous medical breakthroughs. However, despite their significant contributions to science and medicine, the Lacks family had never been compensated.

The lawsuit filed in 2021 accused Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. of unjustly profiting from Henrietta Lacks’ cells long after their origins were known. The company allegedly made billions of dollars off her cells without providing any compensation to the family.

The settlement was reached after closed-door negotiations at a federal courthouse in Baltimore, and the terms have been kept confidential. The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks and the use of her cells without consent shed light on a larger issue of racism within the U.S. medical system, which has historically exploited minority patients.

While the family did not receive financial compensation until now, they had previously reached an agreement with the National Institutes of Health in 2013, granting them some control over the use of the DNA code from HeLa cells. Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents the Lacks family, announced the settlement and commemorated Henrietta Lacks on what would have been her 103rd birthday.

Overall, this settlement marks a significant step towards justice for Henrietta Lacks and her descendants after a long and arduous fight for recognition and compensation.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about exploitation

What is the significance of Henrietta Lacks’ cells?

Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cells, known as HeLa cells, became the first human cells to continuously grow and reproduce in lab dishes. They played a pivotal role in countless scientific and medical innovations, including the development of the polio vaccine, genetic mapping, and COVID-19 vaccines.

Why did Henrietta Lacks’ family file a lawsuit?

Her family filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. for using her cells without consent and profiting from them long after their origin was known. They argued that the company unjustly enriched itself while the family received no compensation.

What was the outcome of the lawsuit?

After closed-door negotiations, Henrietta Lacks’ family reached a settlement with the biotechnology company. The terms of the settlement have been kept confidential, but it marks a landmark victory for the family after decades of uncompensated exploitation.

How did Henrietta Lacks’ case reflect a larger issue?

The lawsuit shed light on racism within the U.S. medical system, where historically, doctors and scientists have exploited minority patients. It exemplified the common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history in the medical field.

Was Johns Hopkins Hospital involved in the exploitation?

Johns Hopkins Hospital was not directly involved in profiting from the HeLa cells, and they claimed to have never sold or benefited from them. However, many other companies have patented ways of using the cells for commercial purposes.

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