The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recognised the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells provided the basis for milestone medical breakthroughs. Lacks was a black woman, and her tissues were used for research without her knowledge and consent.
Henrietta Lacks sought treatment for cervical cancer at the John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, in the 1950s. Researchers took tissues from her body and created the first 'immortal line' of human cells to divide indefinitely in a laboratory. They named them 'HeLa cells'.
The WHO said that the international body wants to address a "historic wrong" and declare that the global scientific community hid her ethnicity. The UN body stated that it acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices, and advancing racial equity in health and science, reported Al Jazeera.
Lack's son, Lawrence Lacks (81), received the award from the WHO at its headquarters in Geneva. He was accompanied by several of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Lacks died in 1951 at the age of 31.
Lawrence Lacks told Al Jazeera that the family is moved to receive this historic recognition. "My mother's contributions, once hidden, are now being rightfully honoured for their global impact. She 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."
Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that it is also an opportunity to recognise women – particularly women of colour – who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.
Tedros noted that Black people like Lacks were subjected to racial discrimination in healthcare and 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." He added that racial discrimination is still a problem in many parts of the world.
The WHO pointed out women of colour die from cervical cancer at several times the rate of white women. The highest cervical cancer rate is in Africa. Dr Princess Nothemba (Nono) Simelela, a special adviser to Tedros, said that it is unacceptable that the access to HPV vaccine that protects women from this risk is shaped by race, ethnicity, and where you happen to be born.
The HPV vaccine was using Lacks's tumour cells. The cells were mass-produced for profit without recognition to her family. The Lack's family found out about HeLa cells in the 1970s and sued the pharmaceutical company.
The WHO data says that over 50,000,000 metric tonnes of HeLa cells have been distributed around the world. Lacks' legacy was documented in the book 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' by Rebecca Skloot.