The HeLa cells controversy: settlement of unjust enrichment litigation

Last week, the living relatives of Henrietta Lacks reached a settlement in the litigation with the biotechnology company, Thermo Fisher Scientific.

The proceedings, commenced in the District Court of Baltimore, centred on HeLa, a cell line produced from the cervical cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks. Ms Lacks was treated for cervical cancer in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital and died of her cancer that year. A sample of her cancer cells was sent without her knowledge or consent to medical researcher George Gey. Dr Gey needed a cell line to use in cancer research. At the time, collecting a patient’s cells without their consent was legal.

Cells harvested from other patients always died after removal from a patient, but Ms Lacks’ cells grew and divided. HeLa cells were the first cells to reproduce outside the human body. HeLa cells have since 1951 been used in a very wide range of medical research, ranging from studies on tuberculosis, blood disorders, Ebola, polio and Covid-19 vaccines, and studies on AIDS.

Ms Lack’s family were deeply unhappy about the profits made from Ms Lack’s cells. According to The Scientist magazine:

“In 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) helped broker an agreement with the Lacks family about how genomic data from the cells should be shared, concluding that information would only be made available to scientists who intended to use the data for biomedical research purposes.”

But this did not end the dispute. in 2021, the Lacks family commenced proceedings against biotechnology company Thermo Fisher Scientific for the profits it made from the HeLa cell line. Ms Lack’s family members argued that the company had unjustly enriched itself using Ms Lacks’ cells.

In 2022, Thermo Fisher Scientific argued that the Lacks family’s claim of unjust enrichment was pursued a decade too late because of Maryland’s three-year limitation period, and should be dismissed, according to newspaper Maryland Matters.

The confidential settlement was reached on 1 August 2023, which would have been Ms Lacks’ 103rd birthday. The NIH reported in 2016 that:

“The story of Henrietta Lacks, her family, and the creation of HeLa cells has been a catalyst for policy change, including major regulatory changes proposed in the United States for informed consent for biospecimen research… The story of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells generated tremendous public attention—particularly around informed consent for biospecimen research—and has demonstrably influenced policy discussions in this arena. These have occurred in the context of rapid scientific and technological innovation and the inescapable recognition that complete deidentification of biospecimens and data is illusory.”


David Stewart

Principal / Head of Intellectual Property Law

Disclaimer: The information published in this article is of a general nature and should not be construed as legal advice. Whilst we aim to provide timely, relevant and accurate information, the law may change and circumstances may differ. You should not therefore act in reliance on it without first obtaining specific legal advice.

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