Henrietta Lacks, a Black mother of five, was dying of cervical cancer in 1951, when doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore took a sample of her cells without her knowledge or consent.
The invasive procedure led to a revolutionary discovery: Her cells were the first to reproduce in a laboratory, which no human cells had done before, allowing researchers to develop vaccines for polio and the coronavirus and treatments for disease including cancer, Parkinson’s and the flu.
But it would be more than two decades before her family knew that the cells were fueling research in laboratories all over the world, and even in space, creating an unparalleled medical legacy.
On Tuesday, which would have been Ms. Lacks’s 103rd birthday, some of her descendants gathered at a news conference after reaching a settlement with a biotechnology company that they had accused in a lawsuit of profiting from the cell line named for her, HeLa.
A grandson, Alfred Lacks Carter Jr., said, “it could not have been a more fitting day for her to have justice and for her family to have relief.”
“It was a long fight, over 70 years, and Henrietta Lacks gets her day,” he said.
The family’s lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland in October 2021, accused the company, Thermo Fisher Scientific, of selling the cells and trying to secure intellectual property rights on the products the cells had helped develop without compensating the family or seeking their permission or approval.
The terms of the settlement are confidential, lawyers for both parties said in a statement.
Thermo Fisher, which is based in Massachusetts, and the legal team for Ms. Lacks’s family released identical statements announcing the settlement.
“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 statements said.
At the news conference, one of the family’s lawyers, Chris Ayers, suggested that similar lawsuits would follow.
“The fight against those who profit, and chose to profit, off the deeply unethical and unlawful history and origins of the HeLa cells will continue,” he said.
Ms. Lacks was 31 when she died in October 1951.
Eight months earlier, she had learned she had cervical cancer after being admitted to a racially segregated ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Doctors removed a sample of cells from the tumor in her cervix without her knowledge or consent and gave them to a medical researcher at Johns Hopkins University. The researcher found that her cells were the first to reproduce in a laboratory, outside the body.
Most cells die within days, but because Ms. Lacks’s cells continued to multiply, researchers and scientists could use them to do things such as test how the polio virus infects cells and causes disease.
Research using the HeLa cells has led to the development of treatments for diseases including cancer, Parkinson’s and the flu. The cells have also been used by researchers around the world and have been cited in more than 110,000 scientific publications, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Ms. Lacks’s family was not told about the world-changing discovery and did not find out about the cell line until 1973, according to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a book by Rebecca Skloot that was turned into a movie featuring Oprah Winfrey as Ms. Lacks’s daughter Deborah.
Ms. Lacks’s descendants have said they are proud of her contribution but angry about how she was treated by the medical establishment. These frustrations have been made worse with the commercialization of her cells, they said.
The family’s lawsuit against Thermo Fisher said the company had “made staggering profits by using the HeLa cell line — all while Ms. Lacks’ Estate and family haven’t seen a dime.”
“Thermo Fisher Scientific’s choice to continue selling HeLa cells in spite of the cell lines’ origin and the concrete harms it inflicts on the Lacks family can only be understood as a choice to embrace a legacy of racial injustice embedded in the U.S. research and medical systems,” the lawsuit said.
Thermo Fisher tried to dismiss the case, arguing that the lawsuit was filed after the statute of limitations had expired, The Baltimore Sun reported. Lawyers for the family said the limit should not apply because the company continued to benefit financially from the cells.