Henrietta Lacks has been posthumously honoured by the World Health Organisation, which says she was “exploited” for science and that what happened to her was wrong.
Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave in Baltimore, following her death at age 31 from cervical cancer, back in 1951.
And yet she became known as the “mother” of modern medicine, thanks to the human cancer cells that were collected from her by doctors, without her knowledge.
Those cells, which had a remarkable ability to reproduce, led to significant advancements in medicine, given they were the first to multiply outside the human body, bringing 20 years of failed laboratory work by Dr George Gey, his wife Margaret and technician Mary Kubicek, to an end. The cells supported research leading to everything from the polio vaccine, to IVF treatment, the cervical cancer vaccine and even early-stage research into understanding COVID-19. They became known as the HeLa Cells, with Lacks even labelled as “immortal” thanks to the continued use of her cells.
But in Geneva, Sweden, where Lacks’ 87 year old son collected an award on his mother’s behalf, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “what happened to Henrietta was wrong.”
“Henrietta Lacks was exploited. She is one of many women of colour whose bodies have been misused by science.
“She placed her trust in the health system so she could receive treatment. But the system took something from her without her knowledge or consent,” Dr Tedros said.
Lacks had gone to John Hopkins for treatment after being diagnosed with cervical cancer, because it was the only hospital that treated black patients during segregation.
Before treating the tumour, the doctor took a sample without Lacks’ consent. For some reason, the cells had an incredible ability to multiply. They were then sent all around the world to support research in multiple different areas.
They even went in to space to assist experiments regarding how cells could adapt.
Lacks died having never known the importance of her cells, and how they led to medical research impacting almost everyone on the planet. It was only decades later, in the 1970s, that Lacks’ family would learn just how vital Lacks’ cell had been, and that they continued to live on.
That information came thanks to the efforts of journalist Rebecca Skloot, who spent a decade tracing back the story of the cells and publishing the best selling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
The Lacks family ended up forming the Hela Genome Committee in collaboration with a group of scientists, so anyone looking to do research with the Henrietta genome would need to put in an application.