A photograph of Henrietta Lacks.

Cells from Henrietta Lacks gave rise to a historic cell line from which many have profited — although, for decades, her family were not compensated.Credit: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post/Getty

A major biomedical-research organization has for the first time aimed to make financial reparation for the continuing experimental use of cells from Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who was the source of the historic ‘HeLa’ cell line, which has been a mainstay of biological research for decades. The Henrietta Lacks Foundation announced the six-figure gift from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland, on 29 October.

In 1951, doctors took cancerous cells from Lacks without her consent, and later created the HeLa cell line, which today supports a multibillion-dollar biotechnology industry. Lacks died soon after, and for decades, her family saw no financial compensation and were not consulted on other medical decisions stemming from the use of the cells in research.

“We felt it was right to acknowledge Henrietta for the use of HeLa cells and to acknowledge that the cells were gained inappropriately,” says Erin O’Shea, president of the HHMI. “And to acknowledge that we have a long way to go before science and medicine are really equitable.” The HHMI did not disclose the exact amount of the donation.

“I can’t speak for everybody, but I know some family members are grateful for this gift,” says Jeri Lacks-Whye, a granddaughter of Lacks. “Hopefully, other institutions will follow suit.”

The HHMI decided to make the donation after this year’s transformative protests over racial injustice in the United States, including the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May. The institution’s high profile as one of the world’s biggest private funders of basic biomedical research could set a precedent for other research organizations to take similar steps towards reckoning with racial injustice in the sciences, and making reparation for experiments conducted unethically on communities of colour.

The donation is “absolutely thrilling — it’s from an institution that’s well recognized and has a lot of power and a lot of sway”, says Donté Alexander Stevens, a cell biologist and graduate student at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).

Stevens and his colleagues working in the laboratory of UCSD biologist Samara Reck-Peterson had discussed ways of addressing systemic racism in science earlier this year. After many conversations, including with members of the Lacks family, they settled on donating to the foundation every time their lab created a new HeLa cell line, as well as for those created in the past. Reck-Peterson is an HHMI investigator, and her lab’s action triggered the HHMI’s leadership to consider making its own donation, says O’Shea.

The HeLa story became widely known with the 2010 publication of the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. But until recently, no institutions had stepped forward to make restitution for using the cells, says the book’s author, Rebecca Skloot. In August — the month in which Lacks would have turned 100 — the UK biotech firm Abcam announced that it had made an unspecified donation to the foundation. And individuals have made private donations. For instance, Francis Collins, the director of the US National Institutes of Health, is giving an unspecified amount of his 2020 Templeton Prize, worth US$1.4 million, to the foundation.

The HHMI gift, though, is the largest yet, says Skloot, the foundation’s president and founder. “The more of this that we do — whether through the foundation or other things — the closer we’re going to get to being able to fix some of the wrongs that have happened,” she says.

The foundation gives grants to people who have unknowingly been part of historic medical-research studies, and to their families who did not benefit from that work. Recent grants have included educational and medical expenses for members of the Lacks family, as well as support for the families of the Black men who, from 1932 to 1972, were part of a US government experiment to observe the effects of untreated syphilis. The men thought they were receiving free health care, but doctors gave them placebos and administered sham procedures instead.