Henrietta Lacks Family Reaches Settlement With Biotech Company Over Her ‘Immortal’ Cells

Photo of author
Written By Editor

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur pulvinar ligula augue quis venenatis. 

Nuclei, microfilaments and membrane particles in HeLa cells.

The family of Henrietta Lacks—whose cancer cells have played a vital role in modern medicine for decades—has reached a legal settlement with the biotech company Thermo Fisher Scientific over the use of those cells.

Lacks’s cancer became the first immortalized human cell line and continues to be widely used. However, the original samples were taken without her permission and the family never received compensation as a result. Both the Lacks family and Thermo Fisher Scientific confirmed on Tuesday, August 1, that, after closed-door negotiations, they have reached an amicable yet confidential settlement.


Henrietta Lacks, born in 1920, was diagnosed with cervical cancer by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in early 1951. She succumbed to the illness later that fall. But unbeknownst to Lacks or her family, her doctors had taken tissue samples from her cervix during treatment. Soon enough, these samples ended up in the possession of George Otto Gey, a Johns Hopkins cancer researcher. He discovered that Lacks’ tumor cells were able to survive much longer than human cells normally do outside of the body and could be cloned indefinitely in the lab under the right conditions. Her cancer went on to be the basis of the HeLa cell line, the first of its kind.

HeLa cells have become a crucial aspect of medical research and development to this day, helping scientists study everything from polio to the physiological effects of outer space. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that doctors even bothered to tell Lacks’s family about the continued existence of her cells.


It wasn’t customary at the time for researchers to seek permission for the use of tissue samples from patients. But the resulting controversy did help lead to the development of standardized informed consent practices by the 1980s. And the case is often cited as an example of the systematic racism long experienced by African Americans from the medical community. More recently, projects like the 2010 book by Rebecca Skloot (which was later adapted into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey) have spread public awareness of her story.

Johns Hopkins claims to have never profited from its use or distribution of HeLa cells. But many companies have developed commercialized applications reliant on these cells. And Lacks’s family has argued that they are still entitled to some compensation from these companies. In 2021, the family sued Thermo Fisher Scientific, making the case that the company continued to unfairly profit from the commercializing of HeLa cells long after their origin was publicly disclosed.

setTimeout(() => {
const adSlot = document.querySelector(‘.apscustom’);
const adFallback = document.querySelector(‘.ars-fallback’);
if (adSlot) {
// if has been read, but there’s no ad, then show the fallback
if (adFallback && adSlot.offsetHeight <= 1) {
adFallback.style.display = 'block';
}, 2000);

“The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history,” the family’s original complaint read. “Too often, the history of medical experimentation in the United States has been the history of medical racism.”

On Tuesday, following closed-door negotiations, both sides confirmed that they have now reached an amicable if confidential settlement.


“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 about the settlement,” representatives for both Thermo Fisher and the Lacks family said in a joint statement, the AP reported.

Leave a Comment