Henrietta Lacks’ stolen cells changed medicine—and her family is finally getting compensated

Lacks' 'HeLa cells' were crucial to the development of cancer treatments, COVID-19 vaccines, and more.
The general atmosphere at HBO's The HeLa Project Exhibit For the film adaptation of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" on April 6, 2017 in New York City. Two women stand by a portrait of Lacks wearing a red dress.
The general atmosphere at HBO's The HeLa Project Exhibit For the film adaptation of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" on April 6, 2017 in New York City. Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for HBO

The living relatives of Henrietta Lacks have reached a settlement with the biotechnology company that took her cervical cells without her knowledge over 70 years ago. Lacks’ descendants sued Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher Scientific in 2021, accusing the leaders of profiting off of a racist medical system.

[Related: Five Reasons Henrietta Lacks is the Most Important Woman in Medical History.]

“The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history,” the complaint from the family reads. “Too often, the history of medical experimentation in the United States has been the history of medical racism.”

In 1951, tissue was taken from a tumor on Lacks’ cervix when she sought treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins. Scientists quickly discovered that these “HeLa cells” had some incredibly special properties. They survived and thrived in laboratories, instead of quickly dying after being taken out of the body. The HeLa cell line has been reproduced numerous times ever since, and has become a cornerstone of modern medicine. Lacks’ cells have become a baseline for medicine and enabled numerous medical and scientific innovations including the development of genetic mapping, cancer treatments, HIV/AIDS treatments, and the polio and COVID-19 vaccines

Despite Lacks’ outsized impact, her family had never been compensated. Currently, the terms of the settlement are confidential. Prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump represented the Lack family and said that both parties are “pleased” the matter was resolved outside of court, according to the Associated Press. The announcement also came on August 1, which would have been Lacks’ 103rd birthday.

“I can think of no better present… than to give her family some measure of respect for Henrietta Lacks, some measure of dignity for Henrietta Lacks, and most of all some measure of justice for Henrietta Lacks,” Crump said at a press conference on Tuesday morning, according to CBS News. The family present at the press conference included Lacks’ only living son and some of her grandchildren.

[Related: Racism is undeniably a public health issue.]

Lacks was a tobacco farmer from southern Virginia and was raising five children when the tumor on her cervix was discovered. She was only 31 when she died and was buried in an unmarked grave.

In a statement, Johns Hopkins Medicine officials said they reviewed all of the university’s interactions with Lacks and her family after the publication of Rebecca Skloot’s bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in 2010. While acknowledging an ethical responsibility, Johns Hopkins said the medical system “has never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line.”

On July 25, Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) and Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) both introduced a bill to posthumously award Lacks the Congressional Gold Medal. “Henrietta Lacks changed the course of modern medicine,” Van Hollen said in a statement announcing the bill. “It is long past time that we recognize her life-saving contributions to the world.”