In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a black mother of five who was dying of cervical cancer, went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for treatment.
Without his knowledge or consent, doctors took a sample of tumor cells from the cervix. They gave the sample to a researcher at Johns Hopkins University who was trying to find cells that would survive indefinitely so that researchers could experiment on them.
The invasive procedure led to a world-changing discovery: cells thrived and multiplied in the lab, which no human cell had done before. They have been reproduced billions of times, contributed to nearly 75,000 studies, and helped pave the way for the HPV vaccine, drugs used to help patients with HIV and AIDS and, recently, the development of vaccines against Covid-19.
On Wednesday, 70 years after Ms Lacks died in the “colorful ward” at Johns Hopkins Hospital and buried in an unmarked grave, the World Health Organization honored the contribution she unknowingly made to science and medicine.
At a ceremony in Geneva, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, presented the Director-General’s Award to Ms Lacks’ son, Lawrence Lacks, who was 16 when his mother died on October 4, 1951 .
Victoria Baptiste, Ms Lacks’ great-granddaughter, said the family were “humbled” by the presentation and recognition of the legacy of a “black woman from the tobacco fields of Clover, Virginia”.
“Henrietta’s once-hidden contributions are now rightly honored for their global impact,” said Ms. Baptiste, a registered nurse.
WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said about 50 million metric tons of cells, known as HeLa cells, have been used by researchers and scientists around the world.
“It’s just huge, when you think about it,” said Dr Swaminathan. “I can’t think of any other cell line or lab reagent that has been used to this point and that has resulted in so much progress. “
Ms Lacks moved from Virginia to Baltimore with her husband, David Lacks, in the 1940s in search of better opportunities for her family, according to the Henrietta Lacks Initiative, an organization founded by her grandchildren.
She went to Johns Hopkins for help after she had severe vaginal bleeding. She was 31 when she died, eight months after learning she had cervical cancer.
Neither she nor her family learned that tissue samples from her tumor had been given to Dr. George Gey, a Johns Hopkins medical researcher.
Cells derived from the sample were particularly resistant, doubling every 24 hours and managing to grow successfully outside the human body for more than 36 hours, according to the Henrietta Lacks Initiative.
The breakthrough delighted scientists and researchers who used them to develop the first polio vaccine and produce drugs for other diseases, including Parkinson’s disease, leukemia and influenza.
But the identity of Ms. Lacks has remained withheld from researchers. Her family didn’t discover the use of her cells until 1973, when scientists called them for blood samples so they could study their genes, according to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a book hit by Rebecca Skloot which was also made into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey.
Ms Lacks’ descendants have expressed pride in what her cells have accomplished, but also their anger at the way she was treated by doctors. This fury was only aggravated by the commercialization of his cells.
Dr Gey, who has studied Ms Lacks’ tissue, has not benefited from her research. But over the decades, biotech companies commercialized the cells and sold them even though Ms. Lacks’ family never received compensation.
“Fortunes have been made,” Dr Tedros said on Wednesday. “Science has advanced. Nobel Prizes have been won and, most importantly, many lives have been saved. “
“There is no doubt that Henrietta would have been delighted that her suffering saved others,” he continued. “But the end does not justify the means.
On October 4, his descendants sued Thermo Fisher Scientific, a biotechnology company they accused “of making a conscious choice to sell and mass produce the living tissue of Henrietta Lacks,” according to the federal lawsuit.
The family said they were demanding that Thermo Fisher pay $ 9.9 million and “pay the full amount of its net profits obtained from marketing the HeLa cell line” to Ms Lacks’ estate.
At a press conference, Christopher Seeger, an attorney for the family, suggested more biotech companies could be sued.
Thermo Fisher “shouldn’t be feeling too lonely because they’re going to have a lot of company very soon,” Mr. Seeger said.
Thermo Fisher, who is based in Waltham, Mass., Did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Dr Tedros said on Wednesday that the injustice that began with the removal of Ms Lacks’ cells continued. He noted, for example, that vaccines that help prevent cervical cancer and guard against Covid-19 remain inaccessible in poor countries.
Another speaker, Groesbeck Parham, co-chair of the CEO’s expert group on cervical cancer elimination, said the most effective way to recognize Ms Lacks’ contribution would be to end inequalities in health and science.
He said: “This is how we truly honor Mrs. Henrietta Lacks and immortalize her miracle.”