WHO honors Henrietta Lacks for “incalculable” medical breakthroughs

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday awarded a posthumous award to Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who unknowingly had her body’s cells biopsied while undergoing cancer treatment — and ultimately helped change medical history. 

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Henrietta Lacks National Institutes of Health

The cells that were taken from Lacks’ tumor, called HeLa cells, were the first human cells to be successfully cloned, and have since been infinitely reproduced. Those cells, WHO said in a statement, “have allowed for incalculable scientific breakthroughs” related to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, polio vaccine, drugs for HIV and cancers, COVID-19 research, and even the effects of zero gravity. 

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus bestowed the award, saying it’s important for the organization to acknowledge her nonconsensual, but critical, contribution to modern medicine. For years, WHO said, Lacks’ race and story were hidden by the global scientific community.

“In honoring Henrietta Lacks, WHO acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices, and advancing racial equity in health and science,” the Director-General said. “It’s also an opportunity to recognize women – particularly women of color – who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.”

Lawrence Lacks, one of Henrietta Lacks’ five children, received the WHO’s award on her behalf Wednesday. 

“My mother’s contributions, once hidden, are now being rightfully honored for their global impact,” the 87-year-old said. “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.”

Lacks was a mother of five when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The cells taken from Lacks’ body, WHO said, have been “mass produced, for profit, without recognition to her family.” More than 50 million metric tons of HeLa cells have been distributed globally, and have been the subject of more than 75,000 studies. 

Johns Hopkins researcher Dr. George Gey obtained Lacks’ cells in 1951. Johns Hopkins says on its website that the entity has “never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line.” Rather, Johns Hopkins says, it offers the cells “freely and widely for scientific research.” 

Earlier this month, on the 70th anniversary of Lacks’ death, her family sued biotechnology company Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. for selling her cells, saying it was part of a “racially unjust medical system.” The family has requested that the company tell Lacks’ family the full amount of its net profits it obtained from selling HeLa cells. 

“Thermo Fisher Scientific has known that HeLa cells were stolen from Ms. Lacks and chose to use her body for profit anyway,” the lawsuit says, adding that white doctors at Johns Hopkins in the 1950s, where Lacks underwent treatment, preyed on Black women with cervical cancer. 

“The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history,” the suit says. “Indeed, Black suffering has fueled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition. Various studies, both documented and undocumented, have thrived off the dehumanization of Black people.”

Among the lawyers for the family’s estate is civil rights attorney Ben Crump. “We want to make sure that the family voice is finally heard after 70 years of being ignored,” Crump told CBSN last week. “The American pharmaceutical corporations have a shameful history of profiting off the research of using and exploiting Black people and their illnesses and their bodies.”