Henrietta Lacks, Black woman whose “immortal” cell line changed medication, honored by World Health Organization

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The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday awarded a posthumous award to Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who unknowingly had her physique’s cells biopsied whereas present process most cancers remedy — and finally helped change medical historical past. 

Henrietta Lacks

National Institutes of Health

The cells that had been taken from Lacks’ tumor, known as HeLa cells, had been the primary human cells to be efficiently cloned, and have since been infinitely reproduced. Those cells, WHO stated in a press release, “have allowed for incalculable scientific breakthroughs” associated to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, polio vaccine, medication for HIV and cancers, COVID-19 analysis, and even the consequences of zero gravity. 

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus bestowed the award, saying it is vital for the group to acknowledge her nonconsensual, however important, contribution to fashionable medication. For years, WHO stated, Lacks’ race and story had been hidden by the worldwide scientific group.

“In honoring Henrietta Lacks, WHO acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices, and advancing racial equity in health and science,” the Director-General stated. “It’s also an opportunity to recognize women – particularly women of color – who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.”

Lawrence Lacks, one in every of Henrietta Lacks’ 5 youngsters, obtained the WHO’s award on her behalf Wednesday. 

“My mother’s contributions, once hidden, are now being rightfully honored for their global impact,” the 87-year-old stated. “My mother was a pioneer in life, giving back to her community, helping others live a better life and caring for others. In death she continues to help the world. Her legacy lives on in us and we thank you for saying her name.”

Lacks was a mom of 5 when she was recognized with cervical most cancers. The cells taken from Lacks’ physique, WHO stated, have been “mass produced, for profit, without recognition to her family.” More than 50 million metric tons of HeLa cells have been distributed globally, and have been the topic of greater than 75,000 research. 

Johns Hopkins researcher Dr. George Gey obtained Lacks’ cells in 1951. Johns Hopkins says on its web site that the entity has “never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line.” Rather, Johns Hopkins says, it provides the cells “freely and widely for scientific research.” 

Earlier this month, on the seventieth anniversary of Lacks’ demise, her household sued biotechnology company Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. for promoting her cells, saying it was a part of a “racially unjust medical system.” The household has requested that the company inform Lacks’ household the complete quantity of its internet earnings it obtained from promoting HeLa cells. 

“Thermo Fisher Scientific has known that HeLa cells were stolen from Ms. Lacks and chose to use her body for profit anyway,” the lawsuit says, including that white docs at Johns Hopkins within the Nineteen Fifties, the place Lacks underwent remedy, preyed on Black girls with cervical most cancers. 

“The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history,” the go well with says. “Indeed, Black suffering has fueled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition. Various studies, both documented and undocumented, have thrived off the dehumanization of Black people.”

Among the attorneys for the household’s property is civil rights legal professional Ben Crump. “We want to make sure that the family voice is finally heard after 70 years of being ignored,” Crump advised CBSN final week. “The American pharmaceutical corporations have a shameful history of profiting off the research of using and exploiting Black people and their illnesses and their bodies.”

Li Cohen

Li Cohen is a social media producer and trending reporter for CBS News, specializing in social justice points.