In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a black mother of five who was dying of cervical cancer, went to the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for treatment.
Without her knowledge or consent, doctors removed a sample of cells from a tumor in her cervix. He gave the sample to a Johns Hopkins University researcher who was trying to find cells that lived indefinitely so that researchers could experiment on them.
The invasive process led to a world-changing discovery: cells grew and multiplied in the laboratory, something that human cells had not previously done. They have been reproduced billions of times, contributing to nearly 75,000 studies and paving the way for the development of the HPV vaccine, drugs used to help patients with HIV and AIDS and, most recently, COVID-19 vaccines. helped.
On Wednesday, 70 years after Ms Lax died in a “colored ward” at Johns Hopkins Hospital and was buried in an unmarked grave, the World Health Organization inadvertently honored her contributions to science and medicine.
During a ceremony in Geneva, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus presented the Director General’s Award to Ms. Lax’s son, Lawrence Lax, who was 16 when his mother died on October 4, 1951.
Victoria Baptiste, Ms Lax’s great-granddaughter, said the family was “humbled” by the presentation and acknowledgment of the legacy of “Clover, a black woman from the tobacco fields of Virginia”.
“Henrietta’s contributions, once hidden, are now being honored for her global impact,” said Ms Baptiste, a registered nurse.
WHO lead scientist Soumya Swaminathan said that around 50 million metric tonnes of cells, known as HeLa cells, have been used by researchers and scientists around the world.
“It’s huge, when you think about it,” Dr Swaminathan said. “I cannot think of any other single cell line or laboratory reagent that has been used to such an extent and has resulted in so much progress.”
Ms. Lax moved from Virginia to Baltimore with her husband, David Lax, during the 1940s in search of better opportunities for her family, according to the Henrietta Lacks Initiative, an organization founded by her grandchildren.
She went to Johns Hopkins for help after experiencing severe vaginal bleeding. She was 31 when she died, eight months after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Neither she nor her family were told that her tumor tissue samples had been given to Johns Hopkins medical researcher Dr. George Gay.
According to the Henrietta Lacks Initiative, the cells obtained from the sample were uniquely resilient, doubling every 24 hours and managing to grow successfully outside the human body for more than 36 hours.
The success thrilled scientists and researchers who used them to develop the first polio vaccine and to produce drugs for Parkinson’s, leukemia and the flu, among other diseases.
But Ms Lax’s identity remained hidden by the researchers. Her family didn’t learn about the use of her cells until 1973, when scientists called her for blood samples so they could study her genes, according to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, Rebecca Schlott’s most It was a best selling book. Even turned into a movie with Oprah Winfrey.
Ms Lax’s descendants have expressed pride in what her cells have achieved, but also fury at how they were treated by doctors. That fury is only exacerbated by the commercialization of his cells.
Dr. Gay, who studied Ms. Lacks’ tissue, was to no avail from her research. But for decades, biotech companies have commercialized and sold the cells, while Ms. Lax’s family never received any compensation.
“Luck has been made,” Dr Tedros said on Wednesday. “Science has moved on. Nobel prizes have been won and, most importantly, many lives have been saved.”
“There is no doubt that Henrietta will be pleased that her suffering has saved others,” he continued. “But the end does not justify the means.”
On October 4, her descendants sued Thermo Fisher Scientific, a biotechnology company, which they accused of “making a conscious choice to sell and mass-produce Henrietta Lacks’ living tissue,” according to the federal lawsuit. .
The family said it was demanding that Thermo Fisher pay $9.9 million and that Ms. Lax’s assets “set aside the full amount of its net profit gained by commercializing the HeLa cell line”.
During a news conference, family lawyer Christopher Seeger suggested that more biotech companies could be sued.
Thermo Fisher “shouldn’t feel too lonely, because they’re going to have a lot of company very soon,” Mr Seeger said.
Thermo Fisher, based in Waltham, Mass., did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Dr. Tedros said Wednesday that the injustice that began with Ms. Lax’s removal of cells was continuing. For example, he said that vaccines that help prevent cervical cancer and protect against COVID-19 are inaccessible to poor countries.
Another speaker, Grosbeck Param, co-chair of the Director General’s Expert Group on Cervical Cancer Elimination, said the most effective way to recognize Ms. Lax’s contribution would be to prevent disparities in health and science.
“In this way we truly honor Mrs. Henrietta Lacks and immortalize her miracle,” he said.