Skip to content
WHO honors Henrietta Lacks as family demands justice


October 14, 2021 – Henrietta Lacks, the black woman whose cells were notoriously taken without her knowledge for scientific research, was honored this week by the World Health Organization as her family continues the fight to protect her legacy.

Lacks cells, commonly known as “HeLa”, are the only known human cells that continue to stay alive and reproduce apart from the human body. When a person dies, their cells usually die soon after. But its cells have been used for decades in medical discoveries and life-saving treatments.

“By honoring Henrietta Lacks, WHO recognizes the importance of addressing past scientific injustices and advancing racial equity in health and science,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom said on Wednesday. Ghebreyesus, PhD, at a ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland. “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, the 87-year-old son of Henrietta Lacks, accepted the award on her behalf.

In search of justice

The ceremony took place just over a week after the family of Henrietta Lacks took action against the widespread and unauthorized commercial use of HeLa. cells, as well as to find the “property” of cells.

On October 4, the Lacks family estate filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific, a pharmaceutical company, for selling HeLa cells in large quantities at a high price – the company earns nearly $ 35 billion in revenue every year – while the Lacking family has never benefited financially, according to the lawsuit.

In 1951, the year doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital which cut cellular tissue from Lacks’ cervix while she was receiving treatment for cervical cancer, doctors did not need to seek permission to collect sample.

But the lawsuit alleges that the multi-billion dollar company continued to generate incredible revenue even after experiencing the origins HeLa cells.

The lawsuit asks the court to order Thermo Fisher Scientific to “return the full amount of its net profits obtained by marketing the HeLa cell line to the estate of Henrietta Lacks.”

HeLa cells are valued between $ 400 and thousands of dollars per vial, The Wall Street Journal reported.

HeLa cells allow scientists to perform endless tests to better understand the human body and what it can do, which led scientists to understand the effects of polio on the body, which helped create the polio vaccine.

HeLa cells have also been transported into space to understand the body’s reaction to weightlessness.

Restoring Confidence – Globally

For some, a victory for the Lacks family in court has turned a controversial page in American history, fraught with controversy.

“If you think back to the context where his cells were taken 70 years ago, what was going on in America with all this ‘medical experimentation’ amounted to medical racism,” said civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, who is part of the legal team. representing the Lacks family, said at a recent press conference.

A notable example mentioned by Crump is the Tuskegee Syphilis study, which took place between 1932 and the mid-1970s.

Black men with syphilis were told they were receiving treatment, when in fact they were being studied to understand the aggressiveness of the disease. Even after penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis in 1943, the experiment continued and many died as a result.

The legacy of the betrayal is still being felt today amid COVID-19 and early vaccination efforts. Many blacks were very skeptical about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, with medical mistrust of past events playing a major role, studies show.

“This [lawsuit] is historic, not only because it would benefit his family, but finally America could try to do better, to be better, when it comes to medical racism, ”Crump said.

Other nations also address racist pasts through Lacks’ history.

In England, a life-size bronze statue of Lacks was unveiled on October 4 at the University of Bristol.

It is the first public sculpture of a black woman – made by a black woman – in the UK, the BBC reported.

“Given her heritage as an African-American woman and Bristol’s connection to the slave trade, this is an important statement for Bristol,” said Helen Wilson-Roe, the artist who created the sculpture, said at the unveiling ceremony.

More than 2,000 trips from Africa to the Americas, carrying more than half a million slaves, were funded by Bristol merchants from 1698 to 1807, according to the Free Museums and Historic Houses of Bristol.

More than medicine

A victory for the Lacks family in court could represent not only justice in the health care system, but also black people being seen as equal players in society, Crump said.

Often discussed in the black community, why can Henry Ford’s family define his heritage and benefit from his heritage, the Dupont family can define his heritage and enjoy his legacy, the Rockefeller legacy, the Kennedy legacy… ”he said.

“But when it comes to black people, can others define our heritage and others benefit from our heritage?” “

“We make every effort to ensure that it [Lacks’s] the family can profit from it for the generations to come, for its children and its children still to be born. “