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Henrietta Lacks, Black Woman Whose “Immortal” Cell Line Changed Medicine, Honored by World Health Organization

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday awarded a posthumous award to Henrietta Lacks, a black woman who unknowingly had her body cells biopsy while undergoing cancer treatment – and ultimately helped change the medical history.

Henrietta is missing

National Institutes of Health

The cells extracted from Lacks’ tumor, called HeLa cells, were the first human cells to be successfully cloned and have since reproduced endlessly. These cells, the WHO said in a statement, “have enabled untold scientific breakthroughs” related to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, polio vaccine, HIV and cancer drugs, the research COVID-19 and even the effects of weightlessness.

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus awarded the award, saying it is important for the organization to recognize its non-consensual, but critical, contribution to modern medicine. For years, the WHO said, the breed and history of Lacks have been withheld from the global scientific community.

“In honoring Henrietta Lacks, WHO recognizes the importance of addressing past scientific injustices and advancing racial equity in health and science,” said the Director-General. “It is also an opportunity to recognize women – especially women of color – who have made incredible but often invisible contributions to medical science.”

Lawrence Lacks, one of Henrietta Lacks’ five children, received the WHO award on her behalf on Wednesday.

“My mother’s once-hidden contributions are now rightly honored for their global impact,” said the 87-year-old. “My mother was a pioneer in life, giving back to her community, helping others live better lives and care for others. In death, she continues to help the world. Her legacy lives on in us and us. thank you for saying his name. “

Lacks was a mother of five when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The cells taken from Lacks’ body, the WHO said, were “mass produced, for profit, with no credit to his family.” Over 50 million tonnes of HeLa cells have been distributed worldwide and have been the subject of over 75,000 studies.

Johns Hopkins researcher Dr George Gey obtained the cells from Lacks in 1951. Johns Hopkins states on his website that the entity “never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line “. On the contrary, says Johns Hopkins, it offers the cells “freely and widely for scientific research.”

Earlier this month, on the 70th anniversary of Lacks’ death, his family filed a complaint biotechnology company Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. for selling its cells, claiming it was part of a “racially unfair medical system.” The family asked the company to share with Lacks’ family the total amount of their net profit that they made from selling HeLa cells.

“Thermo Fisher Scientific knew HeLa cells had been stolen from Ms. Lacks and chose to use her body for profit anyway,” the lawsuit says, adding that white doctors at Johns Hopkins in the 1950s, where Lacks underwent treatment, preyed on black women. with cervical cancer.

“The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the sadly common struggle experienced by blacks throughout history,” says the lawsuit. “Indeed, the suffering of blacks has fueled countless medical advancements and profits, without fair compensation or recognition. Various studies, documented and undocumented, have thrived on the dehumanization of blacks.”

Among the family’s estate attorneys is civil rights lawyer Ben Crump. “We want to make sure the voice of the family is finally heard after 70 years of ignorance,” Crump told CBSN last week. “American drug companies have a shameful history of profiting from research into the use and exploitation of black people, their diseases and their bodies.”