Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman, may not be a household name, but her impact on medical science is immeasurable. Her story, often referred to as the “immortal life” of Henrietta Lacks, has sparked discussions about medical ethics, patient consent, and the importance of informed medical research. Recently, her legacy took a significant turn when her estate filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific, a major biotechnology company, for profiting from the HeLa cell line without Lacks’s consent. This article explores Henrietta Lacks’s life, her remarkable cells, and the recent developments surrounding the HeLa cell lawsuit.
The Life of Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks was born on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia. She grew up in a racially segregated society, facing numerous challenges that plagued African Americans during that era. Despite the hardships, Henrietta Lacks was a loving wife and mother of five children.
In 1951, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. During her treatment, without her knowledge or consent, a sample of her cancer cells was taken for research purposes, which later became the famous HeLa cell line.
The Discovery of Immortal Cells – HeLa Cells
Dr. George Gey, a prominent cancer researcher, was trying to cultivate human cells outside of the body to advance medical research. He discovered that Henrietta’s cells were unlike any others he had encountered. Unlike normal cells that died quickly in a laboratory environment, Henrietta’s cells continued to multiply and grow exponentially. They became the first human cells to be successfully cultured and maintained outside of the body indefinitely.
These cells were given the name “HeLa cells,” a combination of the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names. The HeLa cells became invaluable to medical researchers and led to groundbreaking discoveries and advancements in various fields, including cancer research, virology, genetics, and the development of vaccines.
Unprecedented Impact on Medical Science
The discovery of HeLa cells revolutionized medical science, leading to numerous breakthroughs in understanding diseases and their treatments. The cells played a crucial role in developing the polio vaccine, understanding the genetic basis of diseases, and enabling research on cancer and human biology that was previously impossible.
Ethical Controversy and Lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific
The story of Henrietta Lacks also brought to light critical ethical issues surrounding medical research, patient consent, and the commercialization of human tissues. In October 2021, Henrietta Lacks’s estate filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific, alleging that the company had profited from the HeLa cell line without Lacks’s consent.
The lawsuit sought “the full amount of Thermo Fisher’s net profits” generated from the HeLa cell line. The legal action highlighted the ongoing debate about the rights of individuals and their families concerning their biological samples and the commercial gains made by biotech companies.
Settlement on Undisclosed Terms
On July 31, 2023, a significant development occurred in the HeLa cell lawsuit when Thermo Fisher Scientific reached a settlement with the Lacks family. The specific terms of the settlement were not disclosed to the public, leaving the details of the resolution unknown. However, the settlement represents a crucial step in acknowledging the concerns raised by Henrietta Lacks’s family and her descendants about the use and profits derived from her cells.
Legacy and Recognition
Henrietta Lacks’s story gained broader recognition with the publication of Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” in 2010. The book brought attention to the woman behind the HeLa cells and sparked discussions about medical ethics and patient rights.
Henrietta Lacks’s story is a poignant reminder of the complex and often controversial relationship between medical research, patient consent, and ethics. Her immortal cells, HeLa cells, continue to be an essential tool in the advancement of science. The recent lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific and the subsequent settlement further highlight the ongoing importance of addressing the ethical considerations surrounding medical research and the use of human tissues. As we recognize and honor Henrietta Lacks’s contributions to medical science, her legacy continues to inspire ongoing discussions about medical ethics and the importance of informed consent in research.