On Tuesday, the family of Henrietta Lacks settled out of court with the Thermo Fisher Scientific biotech company. The company has made billions of dollars of profit from Lacks’s so-called ‘immortal line’ and agreed to settle after attempting to secure intellectual property rights to the products developed from Henrietta Lacks cells (nicknamed ‘He-La’ in the medical field).
The HeLa line of cells has long outlived their original source: a young Black woman named Henrietta Lacks, who died in 1951 at 31 from cervical cancer. Lacks died unaware that her cells had been taken without her consent or of the medical revolution they would spark. For over seventy years, reproductions of her unique cellular biological matter have been used to produce all sorts of innovative developments in medical tech. Her cells have led to life-saving vaccines, have been used to map the human genome, and to treatments for previously-fatal diseases like HIV. Over 11,000 scientific publications have used her stolen cells, which have led to some of the most significant breakthroughs in medical history.
Though taking samples was standard practice in the 1950s and doctors were not expected nor required to gain consent, this genetic theft disproportionately targeted Black Americans. At the time, healthcare was massively segregated, with entire hospitals and wings of healthcare centers inaccessible to non-white people, regardless of the level of need. Lacks’s cellular immortality came at a time when she was only allowed to seek care for her cancer in a segregated section of Johns Hopkins because she was Black in a world that considered her intrinsically lesser than her white counterparts. Her medical assault has saved the lives of countless individuals just as deserving of care as she was.
Only decades after her untimely death, Lacks’s family became aware their loved one lived on: in the form of cells used in every practical application conceivable. In a 2020 interview with Nature, Erika Johnson recalled her first confrontation with Henrietta Lacks’s immortal cell line in high school biology experiments. “This is my great-grandmother I’m holding in my hand. It was a very surreal situation.”
Medicine has used HeLa cells without recompense for decades, content to leave the originator of these cells without a voice and in the annals of history as merely an interesting footnote. Over half a century after her death, on the 103rd anniversary of her birth, Lacks’s descendants have taken the first steps in returning her voice.