Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer on Oct. 4, 1951, but her legacy and tumor cells still live on 70 years later.
Lacks, whose cells were taken without her consent and aided in a number of medical breakthroughs, was honored by the chief of the World Health Organization with a Director-General’s Award at a special ceremony on Wednesday.
“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,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who spoke to a room full of guests, including Lacks’ family, at the Geneva headquarters, according to the Associated Press. “No doubt Henrietta would have been pleased that her suffering has saved others. But the end doesn’t justify the means.”
While Lacks sought treatment for her cancer, researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore took biopsies of her tumor without her knowledge or consent. Her cells were successfully cloned and the HeLa cell line—a name derived from the first two letters of her first and last names—became the first “immortal” cell line.
HeLa has opened the door for numerous scientific breakthroughs over the years, including the development of the polio vaccine, genetic mapping, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, drugs for HIV and cancers, and most recently, the COVID-19 vaccine.
However, Lacks’ cells are emblematic of the bigger issues in an unjust medical system.
“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 said according to AP.
In a news release about the event, WHO said that as of last year, fewer than 25 percent of the world’s low-income countries and fewer than 30 percent of lower-middle-income countries had access to HPV vaccines through their national immunization programs, compared to over 85 percent of high-income countries.
Here’s more about the ceremony from the news release:
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-grand children, 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.”
WHO notes that the global scientific community once hid Henrietta Lacks’ race and her real story. They are hoping that the award and recognition can help erase some of that wrongdoing. Lacks’ story was told in the 2010 award-winning book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, written by Rebecca Skloot, and a 2017 produced by Oprah Winfrey.
Last week, Lacks’ estate sued a U.S. biotechnology company, Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. accusing it of profiting from Lacks’ cells and perpetuating racial injustice in medicine by doing so. In the release, WHO reports that more than 55 million tons of HeLa cells have been distributed around the world and used in more than 75,000 studies.