Henrietta Lacks’ living relatives gathered Tuesday morning in a sunny Baltimore waterfront park to herald the settlement they reached with a multibillion-dollar biotechnology company that for years has profited off its free use of regenerative cells taken from her decades ago without her consent.

News of the agreement between the Lacks family and Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher Scientific came after two years of litigation in federal court on what would have been the Turner Station wife and mother’s 103rd birthday.

Several family members attributed the serendipitous timing of the development to divine intervention.

“I can think of no better present,” said famed civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents Lacks’ relatives, “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.”

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Lacks’ relatives celebrated with Turkey Hill iced tea, balloons, cupcakes and a cake topped with candles they couldn’t manage to light in the waterfront breeze.

Although both sides agreed to keep the settlement terms confidential, Crump and Chris Ayers, another member of the family’s legal team, stressed Tuesday that this case will be the first in a series of complaints they plan to file seeking compensation for, and control of, Lacks’ “HeLa cells,” which were the first in the world capable of replicating outside the body.

HeLa cells have since been used to develop the polio and COVID-19 vaccines and the world’s most common fertility treatment.

“These companies profit today,” said Ayers, a partner in the New Jersey-based Seeger Weiss law firm. “If they can profit today, they can provide compensation today.”

The Lacks lawsuit raised a question that had lingered since her cells were taken while she received cervical cancer treatment in a segregated Johns Hopkins Hospital ward more than 70 years ago: Who owns those tiny pieces of her?

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Her descendants insist her cells belong to her, because they are part of her, and companies like Thermo Fisher must pay for the privilege to use them in research and product development. Company officials previously said they shouldn’t be singled out for using HeLa cells without the family’s consent because countless others around the world do the same thing.

“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,” the company said in a statement.

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, and they shared Lacks’ miraculous cells with other scientists for free. They’re now widely used around the world.

Absent from Tuesday’s news conference was Lawrence Lacks, 86, Henrietta Lacks’ only living son, whose health is failing. Lawrence’s son Ron Lacks said his father asked him recently to take the case “to the finish line.” Knowing he had brought a mix of joy and satisfaction, he added.

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“It couldn’t have been a more fitting day for her family to have justice, and for her family to have relief,” said Alfred Lacks-Carter, another grandson of Henrietta Lacks.

For many years, Lacks’ contributions to science went unrecognized, but U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who represents sections of Baltimore City and Baltimore County, 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.

Crump said he hopes the settlement and the possible recognition from Congress cement Lacks’ place in history alongside men like President John F. Kennedy and Henry Ford.

“Black women have done so much to help build America. To help build the world,” Crump said. “But everybody in America doesn’t know who Henrietta Lacks is, and that is an injustice. And that’s why we’re fighting. Because Black history is American history. Henrietta Lacks is American history.”

jessica.calefati@thebaltimorebanner.com

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

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