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 the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Thermo Fisher sent an identical statement Tuesday morning to The Baltimore Sun.
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’ grandchildren and other descendants gathered Tuesday morning at Canton Waterfront Park with Crump and other members of the legal team to celebrate the settlement and mark what would have been Lacks’ 103rd birthday.
The fight isn’t over against those who profit from the HeLa cell line, the attorneys said.
“Those who choose to sell, mass produce, without their permission or consent, without compensation to the family — well, we’ll see them in court,” said Chris Ayers, Crump’s co-counsel and a partner at the New Jersey-based law firm Seeger Weiss.
Lawrence Lacks, 86, Lacks’ last living child, couldn’t come to the news conference on Tuesday because of health issues. But Ron Lacks, his son, and the author of “Henrietta Lacks: The Untold Story,” said he told him about the settlement when he got home early Tuesday morning.
“I took my jacket off and said, ‘It’s done,’” Lacks said. “And he was so proud.”
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.
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.
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.
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 the legal team 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.
“We are proceeding forward on a well established legal principle of unjust enrichment,” Crump said. “The plan moving forward is to make these pharmaceutical companies do the right thing. I mean, it’s not a very difficult ask, when you think of the massive amounts of wealth that they have accumulated from using and studying and researching vaccines and medicines based on this Black woman’s genetic materials.”
While the settlement with Thermo Fisher was a win for the Lacks family, it’s “really hard to say” what could come of their threats of further litigation against biotech companies, said Diane Hoffmann, professor of health law at the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law in Baltimore. The settlement avoided a legal ruling on the issue of using Lacks’ cells, and there is not much similar case law to predict how a court would rule on the matter.
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“It may be that they go for a settlement and the family lucks out, like with Thermo Fisher,” Hoffmann said. “But there’s no legal basis yet.”
The Lacks family’s mission is to make sure their ancestor is recognized for the contributions she made to science and to the world, said Lacks’ granddaughter, Kimberley Lacks. She highlighted pending federal legislation filed by Baltimore Rep. Kweisi Mfume and U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin to posthumously grant Lacks a Congressional Gold Medal.
Lawrence Lacks, Ron’s brother, got emotional when he described what the settlement meant to him.
“My grandmother gave the world a gift seventy years ago,” he said, “and we’re here today to give her a gift of justice.”
At the end of the news conference, the family brought out a birthday cake decorated with plastic butterflies and dragonflies. Led by Lacks’ grandson, Alfred Lacks-Carter, they sang Stevie Wonder’s version of “Happy Birthday” to her.
“Say her name!” Lacks-Carter called when they finished.
“Henrietta Lacks!” they answered.