WHO honors Henrietta Lacks, woman whose cells served science

GENEVA — The chief of the World Health Organization on Wednesday honored the late Henrietta Lacks, an American woman whose most cancers cells had been taken with out her data through the Fifties and ended up offering the inspiration for huge scientific breakthroughs, together with analysis concerning the coronavirus.

The recognition from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus got here greater than a decade after the publication of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot’s ebook concerning the discrimination in well being care Black Americans confronted, the life-saving improvements made attainable by Lacks’ cells and her household’s authorized battle over their unauthorized use.

“What happened to Henrietta was wrong,” Tedros stated throughout a particular ceremony at WHO Geneva headquarters earlier than handing the Director-General’s Award for Henrietta Lacks to her 87-year-old son Lawrence Lacks as a number of of her different descendants appeared on.

Lacks died of cervical most cancers on Oct. 4, 1951 at age 31. The tissue taken from her at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore offered the primary human cells to be efficiently cloned. Reproduced infinitely ever since, HeLa cells have turn into a cornerstone of contemporary medication, together with the event of the polio vaccine, genetic mapping and even COVID-19 vaccines.

Tedros famous that Lacks lived at a time when racial discrimination was authorized within the United States and that it stays widespread, even when now not authorized in most nations.

This Forties picture made out there by the household reveals Henrietta Lacks. In 1951, a health care provider in Baltimore eliminated cancerous cells from Lacks with out her data or consent. Those cells finally helped result in a mess of medical remedies and fashioned the groundwork for the multibillion-dollar biotech business.
AP Photo/Lacks Family through The Henrietta Lacks Foundation

“Henrietta Lacks was exploited. She is one of many women of color whose bodies have been misused by science,” he stated. “She placed her trust in the health system so she could receive treatment. But the system took something from her without her knowledge or consent.”

“The medical technologies that were developed from this injustice have been used to perpetuate further injustice because they have not been shared equitably around the world,” Tedros added.

The HeLa cell line — a reputation derived from the primary two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ first and final names — was a scientific breakthrough. Tedros stated the cells had been “foundational” within the growth of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines, which may get rid of the most cancers that took her life.

As of final year, WHO stated, lower than 25 p.c of the world’s low-income nations and fewer than 30 p.c of lower-middle-income nations had entry to HPV vaccines by means of nationwide immunization applications, in comparison with over 85 p.c of high-income nations.

“Many people have benefited from those cells. Fortunes have been made. Science has advanced. Nobel Prizes have been won, and most importantly, many lives have been saved,” Tedros stated. “No doubt Henrietta would have been pleased that her suffering has saved others. But the end doesn’t justify the means.”

WHO stated greater than 50 million metric tonnes (55 million tons) of HeLa cells have been distributed world wide and utilized in greater than 75,000 research.

Last week, Lacks’ property sued a U.S. biotechnology company, accusing it of promoting cells that medical doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took from her with out her data or consent as a part of “a racially unjust medical system.”

“We stand in solidarity with marginalized patients and communities all over the world who are not consulted, engaged or empowered in their own care,” Tedros stated.

“We are firm that in medicine and in science, Black lives matter,” he added. “Henrietta Lacks’ life mattered — and still matters. Today is also an opportunity to recognize those women of color who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.”

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