The campaign led by Henrietta Lacks’ surviving relatives to force a multibillion-dollar biotechnology company to compensate them for use of her stolen, regenerative cells will near resolution Monday, when the two sides are set to meet for a pivotal settlement conference.

U.S. District Judge Deborah Boardman, who has overseen the case for nearly two years, referred the matter to U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Mark Coulson earlier this month, and Coulson on Thursday issued an order scheduling the settlement talks.

The Lacks family’s lawsuit raises a question that has lingered for 70 years, since cells from the Turner Station wife and mother were taken without her consent while she received cervical cancer treatment in a segregated Johns Hopkins Hospital ward: Who owns those tiny pieces of her?

Lacks’ relatives have argued her cells, known as HeLa cells, belong to her, and companies like Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher Scientific, the target of their lawsuit, must pay for the privilege to use them in research and product development.

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Thermo Fisher Scientific officials have said Lacks’ descendants waited too long to take legal action and have argued the company shouldn’t be singled out for using HeLa cells without the family’s consent, because, it says, countless other companies around the world do the same thing.

Lacks’ 1951 cancer treatment did not work, and she succumbed to the disease within a few months of her diagnosis.

Around the time of her death, Hopkins researchers discovered the cells they had secretly sampled from their patient’s cervix were capable of regenerating outside the body. They shared Lacks’ miraculous cells with other scientists for free, and they have since been used to develop the polio and COVID-19 vaccines, as well as the world’s most common fertility treatment.

Lawsuits alleging profits have been made from stolen, regenerative biological material aren’t common, so the road map to legal success has been far from certain. But if the strategy works, this could become the first in a series of complaints seeking compensation for, and control of, Lacks’ cells.

For many years, Lacks’ contributions to science went unrecognized, but Baltimore Rep. Kweisi Mfume and U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin are seeking to change that. They’ve introduced legislation that would posthumously grant Lacks a Congressional Gold Medal.

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“While these cells continue to benefit millions across the world, they were taken without the consent or knowledge of Ms. Lacks and her family,” Cardin said in a statement. The award would ensure “her contributions are recognized and honored for generations to come.”

jessica.calefati@thebaltimorebanner.com

The name of Thermo Fisher Scientific has been corrected.

Jessica Calefati is an education enterprise reporter exploring how Johns Hopkins University is shaping Baltimore’s future. 

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