2021-10-14 00:11:37 Henrietta Lacks, Whose Cells Were Taken Without Her Consent, Is Honored by W.H.O.

Henrietta Lacks, Whose Cells Were Taken Without Her Consent, Is Honored by W.H.O.

Henrietta Lacks, a Black mother of five dying of cervical cancer, sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1951.

Doctors took a sample of cells from her cervix tumor without her knowledge or consent. They gave the sample to a Johns Hopkins University researcher who was looking for cells that could survive indefinitely so that researchers could experiment on them.

The invasive procedure resulted in a game-changing discovery: the cells thrived and multiplied in the laboratory, which no human cells had ever done before. They were replicated billions of times, contributed to nearly 75,000 studies, and paved the way for the HPV vaccine, medications used to treat H.I.V. and AIDS patients, and, most recently, the development of Covid-19 vaccines.

The World Health Organization honored Ms. Lacks’ unknowingly made contribution to science and medicine on Wednesday, 70 years after she died in the “colored ward” at Johns Hopkins Hospital and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director general, presented the Director General Award to Ms. Lacks’s son Lawrence Lacks, who was 16 when his mother died on Oct. 4, 1951, during a ceremony in Geneva.

Ms. Lacks’s great-granddaughter, Victoria Baptiste, said the family was “humbled” by the presentation and the recognition of the legacy of “a Black woman from the tobacco fields of Clover, Virginia.”

“Henrietta’s contributions, once hidden, are now rightfully being recognized for their global impact,” said Ms. Baptiste, a registered nurse.

According to Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist, approximately 50 million metric tons of the cells, known as HeLa cells, have been used by researchers and scientists worldwide.

“When you think about it, this is just enormous,” Dr. Swaminathan said. “I can’t think of another single cell line or laboratory reagent that has been used to this extent and resulted in so many advances.”

According to the Henrietta Lacks Initiative, an organization founded by her grandchildren, Ms. Lacks moved from Virginia to Baltimore with her husband, David Lacks, in the 1940s in search of better opportunities for her family.

She sought treatment at Johns Hopkins after experiencing severe vaginal bleeding. She died at the age of 31, eight months after being diagnosed with cervical cancer.

She and her family were not informed that Dr. George Gey, a Johns Hopkins medical researcher, had received tissue samples from her tumor.

According to the Henrietta Lacks Initiative, the cells derived from the sample were exceptionally resilient, doubling every 24 hours and growing successfully outside the human body for more than 36 hours.

The discovery elated scientists and researchers, who used it to create the first polio vaccine as well as drugs for other diseases such as Parkinson’s, leukemia, and the flu.

Researchers, however, kept Ms. Lacks’ identity a secret. According to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a best-selling book by Rebecca Skloot that was also made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey, her family did not learn about the use of her cells until 1973, when scientists called them for blood samples so they could study their genes.

Ms. Lacks’ descendants have expressed pride in what her cells have accomplished, but also outrage at how doctors treated her. The commercialization of her cells has only fueled her rage.

Dr. Gey, who studied Ms. Lacks’ tissue, made no money from his findings. However, over the years, biotech companies have commercialized and sold the cells while Ms. Lacks’ family has received no compensation.

Dr. Tedros stated on Wednesday, “Fortunes have been made.” “Science has progressed. Nobel Prizes have been awarded, and many lives have been saved.”

“I’m sure Henrietta would be pleased that her suffering has saved others,” he added. “However, the end does not justify the means.”

According to the federal lawsuit, her descendants sued Thermo Fisher Scientific on Oct. 4, accusing the biotechnology company of “making a conscious choice to sell and mass produce Henrietta Lacks’ living tissue.”

The family demanded that Thermo Fisher pay Ms. Lacks’ estate $9.9 million and “disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line.”

During a news conference, the family’s lawyer, Christopher Seeger, suggested that more biotech companies could be sued.

Mr. Seeger stated that Thermo Fisher “shouldn’t feel too alone, because they’re going to have a lot of company very soon.”

Thermo Fisher, based in Waltham, Massachusetts, did not respond immediately to a message seeking comment.

On Wednesday, Dr. Tedros stated that the injustice that began with the removal of Ms. Lacks’ cells had continued. He noted, for example, that vaccines that help prevent cervical cancer and protect against Covid-19 are still unavailable in developing countries.

Another speaker, Groesbeck Parham, co-chair of the director general’s expert group on cervical cancer elimination, stated that the most effective way to recognize Ms. Lacks’ contribution would be to end health and science inequities.

“This is how we truly honor Mrs. Henrietta Lacks and immortalize her miracle,” he said.

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Henrietta Lacks, Whose Cells Were Taken Without Her Consent, Is Honored by W.H.O.