Biotech company settles with Henrietta Lacks’ family, whose cells revolutionized medicine.

Biotech company settles with Henrietta Lacks' family, whose cells revolutionized medicine.

Cervical Cells from Henrietta Lacks: A Journey of Medical Advancements and Legal Justice

Cervical cells taken from Henrietta Lacks, a remarkable woman who passed away more than 70 years ago, have played a pivotal role in advancing modern medicine. However, her family has never received compensation for the use of these cells, which were taken without her knowledge.

Recently, Thermo Fisher Scientific of Waltham, Mass., settled a lawsuit filed by the family, accusing the biotechnology company of profiting from a racist medical system. This settlement brings justice and relief to her family, aligning with what would have been Lacks’ 103rd birthday. The long-awaited resolution marks a significant milestone in the 70-year fight for Henrietta Lacks to be recognized and compensated for her invaluable contribution to science.

Henrietta Lacks, once a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, made an everlasting impact on the field of science. Cells extracted from her tumor became the first to be successfully cloned, and these cells, known as the HeLa cell line, have led to groundbreaking medical discoveries. The development of polio and COVID-19 vaccines, as well as genetic mapping, owes much to the HeLa cells.

Sadly, Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken before the existence of informed consent procedures. While the cells have been instrumental in scientific advancements, her family has faced ongoing challenges in seeking recognition and remuneration. However, this settlement represents a step towards rectifying this long-standing injustice.

The recent legal resolution between the Lacks family and Thermo Fisher Scientific followed closed-door negotiations involving Lacks’ grandchildren. While the terms of the agreement remain confidential, the settlement marks a crucial turning point in resolving the ethical concerns surrounding Henrietta Lacks’ story.

Born into poverty as a tobacco farmer in southern Virginia, Lacks left behind a powerful legacy when she passed away at the age of 31 in 1951. Sadly, she was buried in an unmarked grave. Her story gained widespread recognition through the bestselling book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. In 2017, her tale was further immortalized in an HBO movie, with Oprah Winfrey portraying her daughter.

What distinguishes Henrietta Lacks’ cells is their extraordinary ability to survive and thrive in laboratories. The HeLa cell line has enabled scientists to cultivate her cells indefinitely, paving the way for unparalleled medical research. While Johns Hopkins University has acknowledged its ethical responsibility, it has clarified that it never sold or profited from the HeLa cell lines. Nevertheless, several companies have financially benefited from these cells.

The legal battle fought by the Lacks family has cast a spotlight on the racist aspects of the medical system. Medical experimentation in the United States has historically been plagued by racial discrimination. Henrietta Lacks’ exploitation represents a painful chapter in the history of medical racism that has disproportionately affected Black individuals.

Despite arguments by Thermo Fisher Scientific that the case was beyond the statute of limitations, the family’s attorneys highlighted the ongoing benefits the company reaps from using Henrietta Lacks’ cells. This factor, among others, likely contributed to the successful resolution of the lawsuit.

Henrietta Lacks’ remarkable contributions to science have not gone unnoticed. Recently, U.S. senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, both Maryland Democrats, introduced a bill to posthumously award her the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal. This recognition reflects the profound impact Lacks has had on modern medicine, and the time has come to acknowledge her invaluable and life-saving contributions.

Henrietta Lacks’ story serves as a reminder of the complex ethical considerations surrounding medical research. As scientific advancements continue, it is essential to prioritize informed consent, ensuring justice for all individuals involved. The legacy of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cell line is a testament to the power of one person’s cells in transforming the world of medicine.


  1. Associated Press. (Aug. 1, 2023). Cervical Cells From Henrietta Lacks, Key to Medical Advances, Land Historic Settlement. Retrieved from here.
  2. U.S. National Institutes of Health. HeLa Cells and a Noble Prize. Retrieved from here.