WHO honours Henrietta Lacks, whose stolen cells changed medicine
Tedros Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation has honoured late Henrietta Lacks with a WHO Director-General’s award, recognizing the world-changing legacy of the Black American woman who died of cervical cancer, 70 years ago, on 4 October 1951.
While she sought treatment, researchers took biopsies from Lacks’ body without her knowledge or consent.
Her cells became the first “immortal” cell line, and have allowed for incalculable scientific breakthroughs such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, the polio vaccine, drugs for HIV and cancers, and most recently, critical COVID-19 research.
Shockingly, the global scientific community once hid Henrietta Lacks’ race and her real story, a historic wrong that today’s recognition seeks to heal.
“In honouring Henrietta Lacks, WHO acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices, and advancing racial equity in health and science,” said Tedros. “It’s also an opportunity to recognize women – particularly women of colour – who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.”
The award was received at the WHO office in Geneva by Lawrence Lacks, Mrs. Lacks’ 87-year-old son. He is one of the last living relatives who personally knew her. Mr. Lacks was accompanied by several of Henrietta Lacks’ grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and other family members.
“We are moved to receive this historic recognition of my mother, Henrietta Lacks – honouring who she was as a remarkable woman and the lasting impact of her HeLa cells. My mother’s contributions, once hidden, are now being rightfully honored for their global impact,” said Lawrence Lacks, Sr., Henrietta Lacks’ eldest son.
“My mother was a pioneer in life, giving back to her community, helping others live a better life and caring for others. In death she continues to help the world. Her legacy lives on in us and we thank you for saying her name – Henrietta Lacks.”
Injustice & Inequity
Today, women of colour continue to be disproportionately affected by cervical cancer, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the many faultlines where health inequities persist among marginalized communities around the world.
Studies in various countries consistently document that Black women are dying of cervical cancer at several times the rate of white women, while 19 of the 20 countries with the highest cervical cancer burdens are in Africa.
As a young mother, Henrietta Lacks and her husband were raising five children near Baltimore when she fell ill. She went to Johns Hopkins after experiencing extensive vaginal bleeding and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Despite treatment, it cut her life short on October 4, 1951. She was only 31 years old.
During treatment, researchers took samples of her tumour. That “HeLa” cell line became a scientific breakthrough: the first immortal line of human cells to divide indefinitely in a laboratory. The cells were mass-produced, for-profit, without recognition to her family. Over 50,000,000 metric tonnes of HeLa cells have been distributed around the world, the subjects of over 75,000 studies.
In addition to the HPV vaccine, HeLa cells allowed for development of the polio vaccine; drugs for HIV/AIDS, haemophilia, leukaemia, and Parkinson’s disease; breakthroughs in reproductive health, including in vitro fertilization; research on chromosomal conditions, cancer, gene mapping, and precision medicine; and are used in studies responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.