The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday presented an award to the family of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells have led to medical breakthroughs but were taken without her consent. On January 29, 1951, Lacks felt abdominal discomfort in her womb and sought treatment at John Hopkins hospital. Suffering a hemorrhage, she was tested for the sexually transmitted infection, syphilis. The results returned negative.
Her doctor, Howard W. Jones, biopsied the mass on Lacks’ cervix. It was determined that she had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma. Lacks were treated using radium tube inserts. She was to come back to the hospital for X-ray follow-up treatments. Unbeknown to Lacks and without her consent, samples were taken from her cervix. The samples were given to George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher, and doctor at John Hopkins. One sample was non-cancerous while the other was cancerous.
The cells extracted from Lacks’ cervix later became known as the HeLa immortal cell line; a widely used cell line. The HeLa line is commonly used in scientific research. What is also remarkable about HeLa is that the cells can be used time and time again. Even if the cells are no longer “alive,” a fresh batch can be taken from the original culture of cells.
In 1952, a vaccination for Polio was developed using the HeLa cells. In 1953, the cells were the first to be successfully cloned. In addition, the cells have been used in gene mapping and further research for various illnesses. There are currently 11,000 patents held for the HeLa cells.
Lacks died of cervical cancer on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31. Her eldest son, 87-year-old Lawrence Lacks, received the award from the WHO at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. “What happened to Henrietta was wrong,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during the ceremony.
“Henrietta Lacks was exploited. She is one of many women of color whose bodies have been misused by science.
“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,” Tedros said.
Lawrence, while receiving the award, described his mother as a remarkable woman. “My mother’s contributions, once hidden, are now being rightfully honored for their global impact,” Lawrence said.
“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 – Henrietta Lacks.”
Lawrence was accompanied by Lacks’ grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and other relatives. The awards ceremony comes two months after Lacks’ family members announced that they were suing pharmaceutical companies that continue to use her cells without compensating the family. Prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump will be representing the family in what reports say could be an unprecedented lawsuit.
“The pharmaceutical corporations unethically and some may say illegally took her cells, her miraculous cells without her knowledge nor permission and they have manipulated her genetic material to this day,” Crump said in August. “Her family is here today to start the journey to right that wrong.”