Thermo Fisher Scientific has reached a groundbreaking agreement with the estate of Henrietta Lacks, the long-deceased cancer patient whose “immortal” cells have played a crucial role in biomedical research for decades.
The story of Lacks, a young African-American woman who passed away in Baltimore in 1951, was popularized by Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which was adapted into a 2017 film starring Oprah Winfrey.
The HeLa cell line, the first to survive and reproduce indefinitely under laboratory conditions, has been cultivated in vast quantities and utilized in a variety of medical research around the world, including the testing of the polio vaccine, the study of the effects of radiation on human cells, and the development of a treatment for sickle-cell anemia.
Henrietta Lacks’ journey took an unexpected turn during her surgery to treat cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Without her knowledge or consent, a tissue sample was taken from her cervix, a sample that would eventually give birth to the extraordinary HeLa cell line.
Tragically, Lacks passed away at the young age of 31 due to the disease. Since then, an astonishing 50 million tonnes of her cells have been cultivated.
Seeking Justice and Recognition
The estate of Henrietta Lacks filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher in federal court in Baltimore in 2021, alleging that her family had “not seen a dime” of the money Thermo Fisher made from cultivating the HeLa cell line, which originated from tissue taken without Lacks’ consent during a medical procedure in 1951.
The agreement’s terms were kept confidential. Thermo Fisher and the estate’s attorneys, Ben Crump and Chris Seeger, said in a statement that they were pleased with the settlement.
The lawsuit alleged that Thermo Fisher, headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts, unlawfully commercialized Lacks’ genetic material.
“Black suffering has fuelled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition,” claimed the lawsuit.
The estate asked the court to disgorge Thermo Fisher’s profits from commercializing HeLa cells and prohibit the company from using them without permission.
Thermo Fisher asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit in January, claiming that the claim was not filed within Maryland’s three-year statute of limitations.
Furthermore, the company stated in its court filing that it does not sell HeLa cells. Despite the fact that some products bear the HeLa name, the company’s motion stated that these products are genetically distinct from HeLa cells.
Allowing the lawsuit to continue, the filing said, would “needlessly prolong a painful, futile exercise.”