Thanks in part to the efforts of Blair alum Chris Ayers ’98, a measure of justice has finally been secured for Henrietta Lacks, whose cells have proved indispensable to modern medicine. Mrs. Lacks grew up in southern Virginia during the Great Depression, the child of a Black family of tobacco farmers with few resources. By the time she was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 31 in 1951, she was mother to five children.
Mrs. Lacks’ cancer cells, which showed a remarkable ability to replicate, were collected without her knowledge or consent by doctors and nicknamed “HeLa,” from the first two letters of her first and last names, to conceal Mrs. Lacks’ identity. Those cells have since played a revolutionary role in Western medicine, leading to the development of the polio and COVID-19 vaccines and proving central to dozens of medical breakthroughs that include genome mapping and in vitro fertilization.
In 2010, the best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and subsequent film brought widespread attention to Mrs. Lacks’ story, highlighting the use of unethical medical practices on people of color and raising important ethical questions about informed consent, patient privacy and the commercialization of medical research. In 2021, the Lacks family sued biotech giant Thermo Fisher Scientific, stating in court documents that the company “made staggering profits by using the HeLa cell line.”
Now, thanks in part to the work of Blair alum Chris Ayers, the Lacks family is finally being compensated for their mother’s contribution to science. Counselor Ayers, a partner at the law firm Seeger Weiss, is one of the attorneys representing the Lacks family and, at a press conference last month, announced that a legal settlement had been reached.
“The fight against those who profit, and chose to profit, off of the deeply unethical and unlawful history and origins of the HeLa cells will continue,” Mr. Ayers said, according to articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times.
“It’s a true honor to represent Henrietta Lacks’ family in our historic lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific with titans Chris Seeger and Ben Crump,” he wrote on social media.
A talented wrestler at Blair, Chris Ayers graduated in 1998 and went on to become a four-year varsity athlete on Brown University’s wrestling team. After earning his Bachelor of Arts from Brown in 2002, Chris secured his Juris Doctorate in 2007 from the University of San Diego School of Law. Today, he is a highly respected trial attorney with Seeger Weiss and represents individual and corporate plaintiffs throughout the United States. He has most recently been honored by The New Jersey Law Journal, which named him as a New Leader of the Bar for the 2023 New Jersey Legal Awards, and Lawdragon, which recognized him in 2022 as one of the nation’s leading plaintiff consumer lawyers.