WHO honors Henrietta Lacks, whose cells changed medicine

The World Health Organization (WHO) has honored Henrietta Lacks, recognizing the world-changing legacy of a black woman whose cancer cells have provided the foundation for life-changing medical advances, but were taken without her knowledge or consent. .

Researchers took tissues from Lacks’ body when he sought treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in the 1950s, establishing so-called HeLa cells that became the first ‘immortal line’ of human cells to divide. indefinitely in a laboratory.

In acknowledging Henrietta Lacks, the WHO said it wanted to address a “historical error”, noting that the global scientific community once concealed her ethnicity and real history.

“WHO recognizes the importance of addressing past scientific injustices and promoting racial equity in health and science,” said Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “It is also an opportunity to recognize women, particularly women of color, who have made incredible, but often invisible, contributions to medical science.”

Henrietta and her husband David Lacks shortly after their move from Clover, Virginia to Baltimore, Maryland in the early 1940s. [The Lacks Family via AP Photo]

Lacks died of cervical cancer at the age of 31 in October 1951 and his eldest son, Lawrence Lacks, 87, received the WHO award at his headquarters in Geneva. He was accompanied by several of his grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other family members.

“We are moved to receive this historic recognition from my mother, Henrietta Lacks, honoring who she was as a remarkable woman and the lasting impact of her HeLa cells. My mother’s contributions, once hidden, are now being legitimately honored for their global impact, ”Lacks said.

“My mother was a pioneer in life, giving back to her community, helping others to live better lives, and caring for others. Dead, continue to help the world. His legacy lives on in us and we thank you for saying his name: Henrietta Lacks. “

Tedros noted that black people like Henrietta Lacks suffered racial discrimination in health care, and the problem persists in many parts of the world today.

Henrietta Lacks was exploited. She is one of the many women of color whose bodies have been misused by science, ”he said. “She put her trust in the health system to be able to receive treatment. But the system took something from him without his knowledge or consent. “

Changed lives

The WHO chief said that women of color continued to be disproportionately affected by cervical cancer and that the COVID-19 pandemic had exposed the continuing health inequalities affecting underserved communities around the world. . Studies from various countries show that black women are dying of cervical cancer at a rate several times higher than that of white women, while 19 of the 20 countries with the highest burden of cervical cancer are in Africa , said.

The HPV vaccine, which protects against a variety of cancers, including cervical cancer, is now routinely given to many girls around the world, and there is hope that the disease can be eliminated.

However, the WHO says that as of 2020, less than 25 percent of low-income countries and less than 30 percent of lower-middle-income countries had access to the HPV vaccine as part of their national programs. immunization, compared to more than 85 percent in high-income countries.

“It is unacceptable that access to the life-saving HPV vaccine may depend on your race, ethnicity, or place of birth,” said Dr. Princess Nothemba (Nono) Simelela, special advisor to Tedros.

“The HPV vaccine was developed using cells from Henrietta Lacks. Although the cells were taken without his consent and without his knowledge, he has left a legacy that could potentially save millions of lives. We owe it to her and her family to achieve equitable access to this innovative vaccine. “

Lacks, who lived near Baltimore with her husband and five children, went to Johns Hopkins after experiencing severe vaginal bleeding, where she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

The HeLa cell line developed from his tumor and the cells were produced en masse, for profit, without the recognition of his family, who only discovered that they had been used for science in the 1970s. His life and legacy were documented in Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which was later made into a movie.

Earlier this month, the Lacks heirs moved in to sue a pharmaceutical company that had used the HeLa cell line. The action said the company made a “conscious choice” to mass-produce cells and benefit from a “racially unjust medical system,” the Reuters news agency reported.

More than 50,000,000 metric tons of HeLa cells have been distributed worldwide since they were extracted from Lacks, according to the WHO.

Cells harvested from Henrietta Lacks provided the basis for the HPV vaccine, which has revolutionized the response to cervical cancer and raised hopes that it can be eliminated. [File: Vincent Kessler/Reuters]

In addition to HPV, the cell line has been crucial for the development of the polio vaccine and drugs for HIV / AIDS, hemophilia, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease. It has also led to advances in reproductive health, including in vitro fertilization, and has been used in thousands of studies, including COVID-19.

“The fight to eliminate cervical cancer is part of the larger fight for human rights,” said Dr. Groesbeck Parham, who was involved in the civil rights movement as a teenager in Alabama and is now a clinical expert for the WHO Cervical Cancer Elimination Initiative.

Through her immortal cells, Ms. Henrietta Lacks speaks to us, also drawing our attention to the millions of young women and mothers in low-income countries who still continue to die of cervical cancer because they cannot access and afford to buy the drugs, technologies and medical procedures that are readily available in high-income countries. The questions that arise from the spirit and legacy of Ms. Henrietta Lacks are: ‘Why does this situation exist?’, ‘What are the solutions?’ And ‘When will you implement them?’ ”.


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