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Henrietta Lacks, Black girl whose “immortal” cell line modified medication, honored by World Well being Group


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

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Henrietta Lacks

Nationwide Institutes of Well being


The cells that have been taken from Lacks’ tumor, referred to as HeLa cells, have been the primary human cells to be efficiently cloned, and have since been infinitely reproduced. These 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 results of zero gravity. 

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

“In honoring Henrietta Lacks, WHO acknowledges the significance of reckoning with previous scientific injustices, and advancing racial fairness in well being and science,” the Director-Common stated. “It is also a possibility to acknowledge ladies – significantly ladies of coloration – who’ve made unbelievable however usually unseen contributions to medical science.”

Lawrence Lacks, one among Henrietta Lacks’ 5 youngsters, acquired the WHO’s award on her behalf Wednesday. 

“My mom’s contributions, as soon as hidden, at the moment are being rightfully honored for his or her world influence,” the 87-year-old stated. “My mom was a pioneer in life, giving again to her neighborhood, serving to others stay a greater life and caring for others. In loss of life she continues to assist the world. Her legacy lives on in us and we thanks for saying her title.”

Lacks was a mom of 5 when she was identified with cervical most cancers. The cells taken from Lacks’ physique, WHO stated, have been “mass produced, for revenue, with out recognition to her household.” Greater 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 “by no means offered or profited from the invention or distribution of HeLa cells and doesn’t personal the rights to the HeLa cell line.” Moderately, Johns Hopkins says, it provides the cells “freely and extensively for scientific analysis.” 

Earlier this month, on the seventieth anniversary of Lacks’ loss of life, her household sued biotechnology firm 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 corporate inform Lacks’ household the total quantity of its internet income it obtained from promoting HeLa cells. 

“Thermo Fisher Scientific has identified that HeLa cells have been stolen from Ms. Lacks and selected to make use of her physique for revenue anyway,” the lawsuit says, including that white docs at Johns Hopkins within the Nineteen Fifties, the place Lacks underwent therapy, preyed on Black ladies with cervical most cancers. 

“The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the sadly widespread wrestle skilled by Black individuals all through historical past,” the swimsuit says. “Certainly, Black struggling has fueled innumerable medical progress and revenue, with out simply compensation or recognition. Varied research, each documented and undocumented, have thrived off the dehumanization of Black individuals.”

Among the many legal professionals for the household’s property is civil rights lawyer Ben Crump. “We need to guarantee that the household voice is lastly heard after 70 years of being ignored,” Crump instructed CBSN final week. “The American pharmaceutical companies have a shameful historical past of profiting off the analysis of utilizing and exploiting Black individuals and their diseases and their our bodies.”



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