After a two-year legal battle, the family of Henrietta Lacks has reached a settlement agreement in the case for her cells, unethically harvested by doctors over 70 years ago and sold in products by countless companies. The long-awaited victory is the result of a lawsuit against ThermoFisher Scientific, a $217 billion biotech company that profited from the use of the “HeLa” cells.
Attorney Ben Crump, who represents the family, announced the estate’s historic win at a press conference in Baltimore on Tuesday.
“Members of the family of Henrietta Lacks and Thermo Fisher have agreed to settle the litigation filed by Henrietta Lacks’ Estate, in U.S. District Court in Baltimore,” he said before a crowd at Canton Waterfront Park. “The terms of the agreement will be confidential. 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.”
The Lacks family stood near the podium holding a poster-sized family portrait and a bouquet of balloons to honor Lacks on what would’ve been her 103rd birthday.
Ron Lacks, the son of Lacks’ only living child, 86-year-old Lawrence, stepped up to the mic. He recalled his father losing his mother to “a hail mary, because the Lacks family wasn’t getting nowhere” in the fight for justice.
“He said ‘son, see if you can take this to the finish line for me.’ And I tried,” Ron said.
Lacks died from cervical cancer in 1951 after being abused by doctors at Johns Hopkins hospital, where her cells were stolen. In a previous interview with Word In Black, Ron said his father “watched his mother die” and struggled to get “justice in an unjust system.”
“For a long time, he couldn’t talk about his mom because of the trauma that he went through…I mean, ‘cause my dad, he watched his mother die,” he said.
Ron wrote a book about Lacks, whose cells were unlike any other in history. Rather than dying off, they multiply every 20 to 24 hours. When doctors discovered this, scientists began using her cells to advance medicine.
“If you have had a vaccine, had a shot, if you benefited from any medical research or advancement, then it’s not a great stretch to say that you got a little Henrietta in you,” Crump said at the press conference.
ThermoFisher Scientific isn’t the only company responsible for producing and selling medical products with Lacks’ immortal cells. Others have done the same without compensating her loved ones.
Attorney Chris Ayers, who worked alongside Crump on the case, says “stay tuned” because the legal battle isn’t over.
“The fight against those who profit and choose to profit off of the deeply unethical and unlawful history and origins of the HeLa cells will continue,” he said.
“As Ben said, the HeLa cells were not derived from Henrietta Lacks. They are Henrietta Lacks. Her cells live today. And for those who choose to sell, mass produce, without their permission or consent without compensation to the family, we’ll see them in court.”
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