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Historic Henrietta Lacks settlement paves the way for 'unjust enrichment' claims

Historic Henrietta Lacks settlement paves the way for 'unjust enrichment' claims
Historic Henrietta Lacks settlement paves the way for 'unjust enrichment' claims 02:35

BALTIMORE -- A settlement has been reached in the lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific—a pharmaceutical company that has benefited from the cervical cells of Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks' family in court to discuss potential settlement over immortal 'HeLa cells' use 02:45

Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951. She had gone to Johns Hopkins for cervical cancer treatment. When her cancer cells were biopsied, doctors realized that instead of dying, her cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours.

Tissue taken from the Black woman's tumor before she died of cervical cancer in 1951 became the first human cells to be successfully cloned. The harvested cells are known as HeLa cells.

HeLa cells were discovered to have unique properties. While most cell samples died shortly after being removed from the body, her cells survived and thrived in laboratories. They became known as the first immortalized human cell line because scientists could cultivate her cells indefinitely.    

Over the span of several decades, HeLa cells have become a cornerstone of modern medicine, enabling countless scientific and medical innovations, including the development of the polio vaccine, genetic mapping and even COVID-19 vaccines. 

The remarkable science involved — and the impact on the Lacks family, some of whom had chronic illnesses and no health insurance — were documented in a bestselling book by Rebecca Skloot, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." Oprah Winfrey portrayed her daughter in an HBO movie about the story. 

"There couldn't have been a more fitting day for her to have justice, for her family to have relief," grandson Alfred Lacks-Carter said. "It was a long fight—over 70 years—and Henrietta Lacks gets her day."

The Lacks family eventually sued Thermo Fisher Scientific. They argued that the pharmaceutical company knowingly profited off of Lacks' cells.

Johns Hopkins to name new building in honor of Henrietta Lacks 00:19

They reached a settlement after closed-door negotiations that lasted all day Monday in the chambers of U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Mark Coulson. 

Attorney Ben Crump, who represents the family, announced the settlement after negotiations had ended.

"It's not a very difficult ask when you think of the massive amounts of wealth they have accumulated from using…and researching vaccines and medicines based on this Black woman's genetic materials," Crump said of the settlement.  

The terms of the settlement are confidential, but publicly, the family is claiming victory—both financially and historically.

"My grandmother gave the world a gift 70 years ago, and we're here today to give her a gift-—justice," Lawrence Lacks Jr., the grandson of Henrietta Lacks, said.

The family says the settlement puts other companies on notice for similar "unjust enrichment" claims.

"Those who choose to sell, mass produce without the permission of the family, we'll see them in court," family attorney Chris Ayers said. "If they can profit today, then they can provide compensation today."

A spokesperson for Thermo Fisher Scientific told CBS News Baltimore in part the company was "pleased that they were able to find a way to resolve this matter outside of Court and will have no further comment."

A statue of Lacks is being erected in her honor in her hometown of Roanoke, Virginia.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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