Family of Henrietta Lacks settles HeLa cell lawsuit with biotech giant, lawyer says

The family of Henrietta Lacks agreed Monday to settle its lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company that sold products derived from the Baltimore County resident’s cells, according to civil rights attorney Ben Crump.

The terms of the settlement are confidential, Crump said in a statement shortly before midnight Monday.

“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,” said Crump, who was hired in 2021 by Lacks’ family to explore litigation against biotech companies that profit from HeLa cells — an immortal cell line derived from a sample taken from the Turner Station resident over 70 years ago at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

A Thermo Fisher spokesperson did not immediately return a request early Tuesday morning to comment on the settlement.

The case was sent to Magistrate Judge J. Mark Coulson last week and was scheduled for a settlement conference Monday morning. The hearing was closed to the public and ran until late in the evening.

Lacks’ surviving family members filed suit against Thermo Fisher in October 2021, arguing that the Massachusetts-based biotechnology giant unjustly profited from cells taken from Lacks in 1951 while she was being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Thermo Fisher tried twice to dismiss the case, arguing that the Lacks family hadn’t filed their claim in a timely manner. Under Maryland law, a person has to sue for unjust enrichment within three years of first learning of something that might be grounds for a lawsuit.

Family of Henrietta Lacks settles HeLa cell lawsuit with biotech giant, lawyer says

The company also has argued that the family’s complaint doesn’t provide any proof for their assertion that Thermo Fisher is not a “bona fide purchaser for value” — a phrase that describes someone who buys property without any reason to suspect irregularities in the transaction.

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But Lacks’ family and their legal team — led by Crump — said the multibillion-dollar company continues to unjustly profit from the cells every time it cultivates, sells and is paid for newly replicated cells in the line. Thermo Fisher, the family alleged in their complaint, is treating Lacks’ cells as “chattel to be bought and sold.”

Lacks, a Black tobacco farmer and mother of five who lived in Turner Station, died shortly after her diagnosis, at 31 years old. But her cells — which Johns Hopkins doctors took from her without her knowledge or consent — lived on, becoming the first to survive outside a body in a laboratory. The cells, known as HeLa cells, are still replicating in laboratories today, some seven decades after Lacks’ death.

HeLa cells, the first “immortal” cell line, have been used in countless biomedical breakthroughs. They helped doctors eradicate polio and map the human genome, as well as develop HPV vaccines, in vitro fertilization and — more recently — COVID-19 vaccines.

A painting of Henrietta Lacks hangs in the entryway of the Henrietta Lacks Community Center at Lyon Homes in Turner Station. Henrietta Lacks and her family lived in the community. Lacks was being treated for cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 when her cells were collected without her knowledge. The cells, which became known as the HeLa cell line, continue to reproduce and are still used by researchers.

The cell line also was the first to be commercialized, becoming the building blocks for a multibillion-dollar industry based on buying and selling tissues and cells and patenting genes. Lacks’ legacy went without much public recognition for decades until journalist Rebecca Skloot chronicled the story of her cells in the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which Oprah made into a 2017 movie.

Crump, who also has represented the families of Tyre Nichols, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin, and plans to represent victims of child sexual abuse, said he and the family intend to sue as many as 100 defendants — mostly pharmaceutical companies that have made fortunes off medical research with the HeLa cell line, and possibly Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Johns Hopkins Medicine says it has never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of the cell line and doesn’t own the rights to it. Instead, the institution offered the cells “freely and widely for scientific research,” according to its website.

In the release announcing the settlement, Crump’s office also scheduled a news conference for Tuesday morning, which would have been Henrietta Lacks’ 103rd birthday.