(Photo: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History and Culture)



(Portions of this story are from BBC News and Morning Brew) —  The family of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells underpin much of modern medicine, reached a settlement yesterday with biotech company Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Lacks’s descendants filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher in 2021, claiming that the company profited off of her cells for decades by selling her cells and seeking to obtain IP rights to medical advancements that they were used to develop.

Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. While receiving treatment at Johns Hopkins, her cells were harvested without her knowledge or consent. When researchers observed her cells in the lab, they found something surprising: They multiplied, whereas others would die within days. Scientists dubbed the line of identical cells “HeLa,” after Lacks’s name, and have used it for a variety of medical advancements you’ve likely benefited from. According to the World Health Organization, HeLa cells were used:

  • In developing vaccines for polio, HPV, the flu, and Covid-19.
  • To study different types of cancer and sexually transmitted diseases, as well as IVF.

It was not until decades later that the Lacks family discovered what had become of her cells.

Thermo Fisher tried several times to have the case dismissed due to a statute of limitation expiration.

But lawyers for the Lacks family said that the limitation had not been reached because the cells are still being replicated.

The settlement terms are confidential, but Lacks’s family has used the lawsuit to call attention to racism in the American medical system, saying in their complaint, “Too often, the history of medical experimentation in the United States has been the history of medical racism.”

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To read the full BBC story click here.