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Henrietta Lacks’ family settles with company in lawsuit over ‘immortal’ cell line

Henrietta Lacks’ family reaches settlement in lawsuit with company over ‘immortal’ cell line.

Henrietta Lacks
Image Source: An undated photo of Henrietta Lacks Photo, The Lacks Family

Laboratory equipment maker Thermo Fisher Scientific has settled a lawsuit with the estate of Henrietta Lacks, a long-deceased cancer victim whose cells have played a crucial role in biomedical research for decades. Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman, passed away in 1951, but her “immortal” cells, known as the HeLa cell line, have been cultivated and used extensively in medical research worldwide.

The story of Henrietta Lacks gained widespread attention through Rebecca Skloot’s book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and a subsequent movie featuring Oprah Winfrey. The HeLa cell line was the first to survive and reproduce indefinitely in laboratory conditions, making it an invaluable resource for various medical research purposes.

Unfortunately, Lacks’ cells were taken without her knowledge during surgery to treat her cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore. Since then, her cells have been extensively used in research, estimated to amount to 50 million tonnes.

Lacks’ estate filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher in 2021, alleging that the family had not received any compensation from the profits made by Thermo Fisher through the commercialization of the HeLa cell line. The lawsuit accused the company of unjust enrichment, asserting that it had illegally profited from Lacks’ genetic material.

The terms of the settlement remain confidential. Both Thermo Fisher and the estate’s attorneys, Ben Crump and Chris Seeger, expressed satisfaction with the agreement.

The lawsuit brought attention to the issue of black suffering being used for medical progress and profit without proper compensation or recognition. The estate sought to disgorge Thermo Fisher’s profit from the commercialization of HeLa cells and to prevent the company from using them without permission.

Thermo Fisher argued in court that the lawsuit was brought too late and that the estate’s unjust enrichment claim was invalid. The resolution of this legal battle marks a significant step in recognizing the importance of ethical practices and fair compensation in the realm of medical research involving human tissues and genetic material.

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