GENEVA — The chief of the World Health Organization on Wednesday honored the late Henrietta Lacks, an American woman whose most cancers cells had been taken with out her data throughout the Nineteen Fifties and ended up offering the inspiration for huge scientific breakthroughs, together with analysis in regards to the coronavirus.
The recognition from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus got here greater than a decade after the publication of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot’s e-book in regards to the discrimination in well being care Black Americans confronted, the life-saving improvements made potential by Lacks’ cells and her household’s authorized battle over their unauthorized use.
“What happened to Henrietta was wrong,” Tedros mentioned throughout a particular ceremony at WHO Geneva headquarters earlier than handing the Director-General’s Award for Henrietta Lacks to her 87-year-old son Lawrence Lacks as a number of of her different descendants regarded on.
Lacks died of cervical most cancers on Oct. 4, 1951 at age 31. The tissue taken from her at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore supplied the primary human cells to be efficiently cloned. Reproduced infinitely ever since, HeLa cells have grow to be a cornerstone of recent drugs, together with the event of the polio vaccine, genetic mapping and even COVID-19 vaccines.
Tedros famous that Lacks lived at a time when racial discrimination was authorized within the United States and that it stays widespread, even when now not authorized in most nations.
“Henrietta Lacks was exploited. She is one of many women of color whose bodies have been misused by science,” he mentioned. “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.”
“The medical technologies that were developed from this injustice have been used to perpetuate further injustice because they have not been shared equitably around the world,” Tedros added.
The HeLa cell line — a reputation derived from the primary two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ first and final names — was a scientific breakthrough. Tedros mentioned the cells had been “foundational” within the improvement of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines, which may remove the most cancers that took her life.
As of final yr, WHO mentioned, lower than 25 % of the world’s low-income nations and fewer than 30 % of lower-middle-income nations had entry to HPV vaccines by way of nationwide immunization packages, in comparison with over 85 % of high-income nations.
“Many people have benefited from those cells. Fortunes have been made. Science has advanced. Nobel Prizes have been won, and most importantly, many lives have been saved,” Tedros mentioned. “No doubt Henrietta would have been pleased that her suffering has saved others. But the end doesn’t justify the means.”
WHO mentioned greater than 50 million metric tonnes (55 million tons) of HeLa cells have been distributed around the globe and utilized in greater than 75,000 research.
Last week, Lacks’ property sued a U.S. biotechnology firm, accusing it of promoting cells that medical doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took from her with out her data or consent as a part of “a racially unjust medical system.”
“We stand in solidarity with marginalized patients and communities all over the world who are not consulted, engaged or empowered in their own care,” Tedros mentioned.
“We are firm that in medicine and in science, Black lives matter,” he added. “Henrietta Lacks’ life mattered — and still matters. Today is also an opportunity to recognize those women of color who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.”