The WHO posthumously honored Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cells changed medicine forever

Henrietta Lacks was living with her husband and five children near Baltimore when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, a disease that killed her on October 4, 1951, when she was only 31 years old (The Lacks Family via AP)

The World Health Organization (WHO) today posthumously awarded its main decoration to the African-American Henrietta Lacks, died of cervical cancer 70 years ago and whose cells were key to the investigation of dozens of diseases, including COVID-19.

The WHO Director-General Award It was awarded today by the current holder of that position, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s now 87-year-old son, in a ceremony which was also attended by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. involuntary benefactress of humanity.

Henrietta Lacks was living with her husband and five children near Baltimore (eastern USA) when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. at the famous local Johns Hopkins medical center, an illness that caused his death on October 4, 1951, when he was only 31 years old.

Without her knowledge or consent, the doctors preserved samples of the woman’s biopsies and with them created the first “immortal” line of cells for experimentation., called HeLa by the initial syllables of the patient.

These HeLa cells have been massively reproduced artificially in the last seven decades, and it is calculated that some 50 million metric tons of this biological material have been used in 75,000 scientific studies around the world.

With them they have been achieved huge advances, such as vaccines against polio and papillomavirus, as well as treatments against various cancers, HIV / AIDS, hemophilia or Parkinson’s.

The WHO Director-General Award was presented today by the current holder of that position, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (Photo: REUTERS / Denis Balibouse)
The WHO Director-General Award was presented today by the current holder of that position, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (Photo: REUTERS / Denis Balibouse)

WHO today regretted that all this was done without the Lacks family’s knowledge of Henrietta’s contribution to science, since for a long time this story and even the ethnicity of the patient were hidden.

Henrietta would have been happy to know that her suffering saved others, but the end does not justify the means, they should have asked her permission. With the Lacks award, WHO recognizes the importance of admitting past scientific injustices, and the need to advance racial equality in health and science”, Tedros highlighted at the ceremony.

The Geneva-based organization also underscored that women of color suffer from cervical cancer at a higher rate, and 19 of the 20 countries with the highest rates of this disease are in Africa.

In 2020, coinciding with the centenary of the birth of Henrietta Lacks, WHO launched a campaign with the aim of eliminating cervical cancer, the first that the UN agency has set out to eradicate globally.

His family asks for justice

“They have been using their cells for 70 years and the Lacks family has received nothing in exchange for this theft,” her granddaughter Kimberly Lacks said at a press conference in July before announcing her intention to file a complaint against the drug groups that profited from the samples.

They treated her like a lab rat, like she wasn’t human, had no family”He continued, demanding “Justice for this racist and unethical treatment.”

HeLa cells enabled laboratories around the world to develop vaccines; cancer treatments; and certain cloning techniques, an industry that generates billions of dollars.

Henrietta y su marido David Lacks (The Lacks Family via AP)
Henrietta y su marido David Lacks (The Lacks Family via AP)

Henrietta Lacks’ family knew nothing of these advances until the 1970s and whose scope he really understood only thanks to work by Rebecca Skloot, 2010 bestseller author The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

“The Lacks Family Has Been Exploited For Too Long, But It’s Over”Said his grandson Alfred Carter, announcing that he had chosen to be represented in court by famous civil rights attorney Ben Crump. “The lives of blacks must be valued in America”, said.

His colleague Christopher Seeger specified that the complaint would reach “all those who benefited from the use of HeLa cells and that they did not reach an agreement with the family to compensate them ”.

Ellen Wright Clayton, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society, told the agency AFP that probably it will be difficult for the Lacks family to “get compensation” in court, which until now has been “very reluctant to grant humans some control over their biological samples.”

But “this will open an interesting debate”, he predicts: “The tension (will center) between the common desire to promote research and the right of individuals to control their personal data, in a society in which that control is increasingly limited “

The complaint was filed on October 8, on the 70th anniversary of the controversial cell extraction.

(With information from EFE and AFP)

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