March 5, 2024

Henrietta Lacks family settles with biotech company over cell line profits

In a historic resolution that underscores the complex ethical questions surrounding medical research and profit, the family of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells have fuelled ground-breaking medical advancements for decades, has reached a settlement with biotechnology company Thermo Fisher Scientific. The Lacks family had accused the company of capitalizing on her cells, known as HeLa, without obtaining their consent.

Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five, unwittingly contributed to an unparalleled medical legacy when, in 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took a sample of her cervical cancer cells without her knowledge or permission. The cells, a unique anomaly, were the first to successfully reproduce outside the human body, propelling medical research into uncharted territory. These cells played a pivotal role in the development of vaccines for polio and the coronavirus, as well as treatments for ailments including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and the flu.

However, the Lacks family remained unaware of the monumental impact of Henrietta’s cells for more than two decades. The lawsuit, filed in 2021 in a US District Court in Maryland, accused Thermo Fisher Scientific of profiting from the HeLa cell line while neglecting to compensate the family or seek their approval. The terms of the settlement have been kept confidential.

In a joint statement, Thermo Fisher Scientific and the Lacks family’s legal team announced the settlement and indicated that they will not offer further comments on the matter. Legal experts predict that this case may set a precedent for future legal actions aimed at addressing the complexities of bioethics and intellectual property rights.

The family’s lawyer, Chris Ayers, hinted at the possibility of similar lawsuits in the future, highlighting moves to hold companies accountable for profiting from historical and ethical controversies.

The HeLa cells, which have been utilized in over 110,000 scientific publications, have given researchers the tools to better understand diseases and develop life-saving treatments. However, this scientific triumph has also sparked discussions about the need for transparency, informed consent, and equitable compensation in the realm of medical research.