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Henrietta Lacks' family settles with a biotech company that used her cells


More than 70 years ago, Henrietta Lacks was being treated for cervical cancer when doctors took cells from her body without her consent. Those cells, known now as HeLa, have been used for medical research ever since and have contributed to scientific breakthroughs. The family of Henrietta Lacks has now reached a settlement with one biotech company that used her cells. After several attempts by the family to pursue legal action over the years, this is the first settlement that the family has ever reached. To talk more about the significance of this, we're joined now by Rebecca Skloot, author of "The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks." Welcome.

REBECCA SKLOOT: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Thank you for being with us. OK, so real briefly, can you tell us more about who Henrietta Lacks was?

SKLOOT: Henrietta was a Black tobacco farmer who grew up in Southern Virginia. And in 1951, when she was 30 years old, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. And she went to Johns Hopkins for treatment at the time because that was really the only place she could get treatment because she was Black, and this was the era of segregation. And before treating her cancer, without telling her, her doctor just took a little piece of her tumor, put that in a dish, and they sent that down the hall to George Gey, who was the head of tissue culture research at Hopkins. And he and scientists around the world had been trying to grow human cells outside the body for decades, and it had never worked. And for reasons that remained a mystery for many decades, her cells just took off, and they became what's known as the first immortal human cell line. And she had no idea this had happened. She died pretty soon after because her cancer was incredibly aggressive, which is part of why her cells grew. And then her cells went on to become one of the most important things that happened to science.

CHANG: I mean, it's an incredible story. As we mentioned, you know, this is the first settlement that the family has reached...


CHANG: ...First legal settlement. The terms are confidential. But why is the fact that there was a settlement at all with this particular company so significant?

SKLOOT: Various generations of the Lacks family have been saying for decades, we were wronged. The growth of this cell line, the way that we were treated, the fact that we were not given information, the fact that multiple generations of our family were used in research without their knowledge or consent, that's not OK. And we have suffered, and the world has benefited. There's not a single person alive who hasn't benefited from HeLa cells in many ways, not just one. And yet, her family has suffered as a result. So this is the first time that the family's claims that they deserve financial compensation for this have resulted in anything from a court of law and - taken seriously.

CHANG: You talk about how so many people have benefited from the taking of these cells from Henrietta Lacks, from her descendants. Can you talk about how and why these cells have been called a medical revolution? What have these cells been able to do for the advancement of science?

SKLOOT: I mean, it's actually - it's sort of, what haven't they been able to do? They're really - so much of what we know of as modern-day medical science can be traced back to her cells. You know, the sort of greatest hits of the early years of her cells were that they were used to create the polio vaccine. So they - her cells grew for the first time during the middle of the polio pandemic, and her cells were largely why that pandemic stopped. They went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity. They were used to create our most important cancer medications like Vincristine and Tamoxifen. We have stem cell research because we learned how to grow cells outside the body using her cells, the HPV vaccine, the COVID vaccine. I mean, her cells were some of the first line of defense against COVID. That's how scientists learn how the virus got into cells and how to stop it. We have IVF thanks to her cells. So the number of people who are alive today...

CHANG: Yeah.

SKLOOT: ...Because her cells exist - I mean, it's just - it really is sort of impossible to tease out all the ways that her cells impact people's lives every day.

CHANG: The sprawl of her legacy is so incredible. Well, for your book, I know that you got to know Deborah Lacks, the daughter of Henrietta Lacks, quite well. How do you think she would feel if she were alive today still and could see this settlement happen?

SKLOOT: She spent her entire life wanting people to know the story of Henrietta Lacks. She wanted people to understand who her mother was, what her mother contributed to science, the cost that her family paid for that. I think she would feel a sense of relief because there were a lot of different things that Deborah wanted the world to do in response to what happened with her family and with HeLa cells. And this is sort of the one that hadn't happened yet.

CHANG: Rebecca Skloot, author of "The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks," thank you so much for joining us.

SKLOOT: Yeah, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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