Toronto Star

‘Henrietta Lacks’ life still matters’


The chief of the World Health Organizati­on last week honoured the late Henrietta Lacks, an American woman whose cancer cells were taken without her knowledge during the 1950s and ended up providing the foundation for many vast scientific breakthrou­ghs, including research about the coronaviru­s.

The recognitio­n from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu­s came more than a decade after the publicatio­n of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot’s book about the discrimina­tion in health care Black Americans faced, the life-saving innovation­s made possible by Lacks’ cells and her family’s legal fight over their unauthoriz­ed use.

“What happened to Henrietta was wrong,” Tedros said during a special ceremony at WHO Geneva headquarte­rs before handing the Director-General’s Award for Henrietta Lacks to her 87-year-old son Lawrence Lacks as several of her other descendant­s looked on.

Lacks died of cervical cancer on Oct. 4, 1951, at age 31. Tissue taken from her at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore provided the first human cells to be cloned. Reproduced infinitely ever since, HeLa cells have become a cornerston­e of modern medicine, including the developmen­t of the polio vaccine, genetic mapping and even COVID-19 vaccines.

Tedros noted that Lacks lived at a time when racial discrimina­tion was legal in the United States and that it remains widespread, even if no longer legal in most countries.

“Henrietta Lacks was exploited. She is one of many women of colour whose bodies have been misused by science,” he said. “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 name derived from the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’s first and last names — was a scientific breakthrou­gh.

Tedros said the cells were “foundation­al” in the developmen­t of human papillomav­irus (HPV) vaccines, which can eliminate the cancer that took her life.

Last week, Lacks’s estate sued a U.S. biotechnol­ogy company, accusing it of selling cells that doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took from her without her knowledge or consent as 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 said. “We are firm that in medicine and in science, Black lives matter,” he added. “Henrietta Lacks’ life mattered — and still matters.”

 ?? THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells, which led to scientific breakthrou­ghs, were taken without her knowledge.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells, which led to scientific breakthrou­ghs, were taken without her knowledge.

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