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Henrietta Lacks' descendants reach a settlement over the use of her 'stolen' cells

caption: Attendees gaze at a painting of Henrietta Lacks at HBO's The HeLa Project Exhibit for <em>The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks</em> in 2017 in New York City.
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Attendees gaze at a painting of Henrietta Lacks at HBO's The HeLa Project Exhibit for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in 2017 in New York City.
Getty Images for HBO

The family of Henrietta Lacks has reached a settlement with a science and technology company it says used cells taken without Lacks' consent in the 1950s to develop products it later sold for a profit.

Lacks, who was Black, was being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University in 1951 when doctors removed cells from her tumor without her knowledge or permission.

Those cells — now known as HeLa cells — had remarkable properties that allowed them to be endlessly reproduced, and they have since been used for a variety of scientific breakthroughs, including research about the human genome and the development of the polio and Covid-19 vaccines.

Lacks' descendants have argued that she and other Black women were "preyed on" by a group of white doctors in the 1950s and that her family was never compensated for the use of her genetic material that made such profitable scientific advancements possible.

"Not only were the HeLa cells derived from Henrietta Lacks, the HeLa cells are Henrietta Lacks," Ben Crump, an attorney for the family, said during a press conference Tuesday.

Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts-based science and technology firm, previously asked a judge to dismiss the case, arguing in part that the plaintiff's claims were too old.

In nearly identical statements, the company and attorneys for Lacks' family said 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" on the settlement.

The terms of the settlement agreement are confidential.

Attorneys for Thermo Fisher Scientific said in an earlier court filing that only a "handful" of the many products the company sells are "HeLa-related."

Lacks' life was the subject of a popular nonfiction book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and later a film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey.

On its website, Johns Hopkins University says it never profited from Lacks' cells and that, though the collection and use of her cells was "an acceptable and legal practice in the 1950s, such a practice would not happen today without the patient's consent."

Alfred Carter, one of Lacks' grandsons, also spoke at Tuesday's press conference and called it a "day that will go down in history." He noted that Tuesday was Henrietta Lacks' 103rd birthday.

"It couldn't have been a more fitting day for her to have justice, for her family to have relief," he said. [Copyright 2023 NPR]

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