WALTHAM – Henrietta Lacks would have been 103 on Tuesday. Her gift is justice. Seventy years ago, Lacks went to the hospital for cancer treatment. Her cells werewithout consent. Those cells went on to revolutionize parts of modern medicine. Now, her family is seeking retribution for their loved one.
“Today is a day that will go down in history,” says Alfred Carter, Lacks’ grandson. “Today could not have been a more fitting day for her to have justice.”
Lacks originally went to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore seeking treatment for cervical cancer. Her cells were taken as part of the procedure; however, they were kept for research purposes without her consent. Doctors discovered that her cells doubled every 20-24 hours instead of dying off. Those cells were the first to be cloned and have been used in numerous medical discoveries from the polio vaccine to cancer treatments.
“My grandmother gave the world a gift 70 years ago. We are here to give her a gift, justice,” adds Lacks’ grandson Lawrence Lacks.
Henrietta died in 1951, but her cells live on. Those cells later became known as HeLa cells in her honor; however, companies have been profiting off of those cells for decades.
“It’s amazing to find that your grandmother’s cells are used in makeup and used for dog food. Any and everybody in space has someone, or maybe you, have used, bought, or benefited from the HeLa cell,” explains Lacks’ granddaughter Kim Lacks.
In 2021, Lacks’ surviving family and grandchildren filed a lawsuit against Waltham-based Thermo Fisher Scientific. They claim the company was mass producing and selling cells and tissue from Lacks, even after it became known how they were acquired. On Tuesday the two came to a settlement.
“Probably best for everyone around to just get closure on this because the law is not particularly clear or favorable to revisit these issues from decades prior,” explains Christopher Robertson, a law professor at Boston University. “Law is not set up to expropriate all the money made by corporations using these cells. Instead, the law asks for what harm was done to Henrietta Lacks or her family, and this is a question that is not all that clear.”
Robertson calls Lacks’ case a landmark when it comes to showing how far the US has come in bioethics and law.
“She did consent to have health care, but she didn’t give additional consent that her cells would be used for research. Today that would just be part of the boiler plate paperwork you would sign into Mass MGH or other hospitals in the area,” details Robertson. “My understanding is back at that time, the specific consent for second use would have routinely been secured.”
At the time, when Lacks went to Johns Hopkins, she entered a segregated part of the hospital.
“Henrietta Lacks sought care where she did because she didn’t have many other options. It’s a form of structural racism that put her in that clinic at that time,” adds Robertson. “This is not a mistake that Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman. This is where we made a lot of mistakes in treating the most vulnerable people among us and trying to make progress in health law and ethics.”