Oct. 14, 2021 — Henrietta Lacks, the Black woman whose cells were infamously taken without her knowledge for scientific research, was honored this week by the World Heath Organization as her family continues the fight to protect her legacy.
Lacks’s cells, commonly known as “HeLa,” are the only known human cells that continue to stay alive and reproduce outside of the human body. When a person dies, their cells usually die shortly after. But her cells have been used for decades in medical discoveries and live-saving treatments.
“In honoring Henrietta Lacks, WHO acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices, and advancing racial equity in health and science,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said at a ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday. “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, Henrietta Lacks’s 87-year-old son, accepted the award on her behalf.
The ceremony came a little over a week after Henrietta Lacks’s family took action to against the widespread — and unauthorized — commercial use of HeLa cells, as well as to seek “ownership” of the cells.
On Oct. 4, the Lacks family estate filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific, a pharmaceutical company, for selling HeLa cells in large quantities at a high price tag — the company earns close to $35 billion in revenue each year — while the Lacks family has never benefited financially, according to the lawsuit.
But the lawsuit alleges that the multibillion-dollar company has continued to generate incredible amounts of income, even after knowing the origins of the HeLa cells.
The suit asks the court to order Thermo Fisher Scientific to “disgorge the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks.”
HeLa cells are valued anywhere between $400 and thousands of dollars per vial, The Wall Street Journal reported.
HeLa cells allow scientists to run endless tests to better understand the human body and what it can do, which have led scientists to understand the effects of polio on the body, which helped create the polio vaccine.
HeLa cells were also taken into space to understand the body’s reaction to zero gravity.
Restoring Trust — Globally
For some, a Lacks family victory in court turn a controversial page in American history, one that is filled with controversy.
“If you think of the context of when her cells were taken 70 years ago, what was going on in America with all this ‘medical experimentation’ was tantamount with medical racism,” civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is part of the legal team representing the Lacks family, said at a recent news conference.
One notable example mentioned by Crump is the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which took place between 1932 and the mid-1970s.
Black men with syphilis were told they were receiving treatment, when they were actually being studied to understand the aggressiveness of the disease. Even after penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis in 1943, the experiment continued, and many died as a result.
The aftermath of the betrayal can still be felt today amid COVID-19 and early vaccination efforts. Many Black people were highly skeptical of getting a COVID-19 vaccine, with medical distrust from past events playing a major role, studies show.
“This [lawsuit] is historic, not just because it would benefit her family, but finally, America could come to grips with trying to do better, be better, when it comes to medical racism,” Crump said.
Other nations are addressing racist pasts, too, through Lacks’s story.
In England, a life-sized, bronze statue of Lacks was unveiled on Oct. 4 at the University of Bristol.
It is the first public sculpture of a Black woman — made by a Black woman — in the U.K., the BBC reported.
“Given her heritage as an African American woman, and Bristol’s link to the slave trade, this is an important statement for Bristol,” Helen Wilson-Roe, the artist who created the sculpture, said at the unveiling ceremony.
More than 2,000 voyages from Africa to the Americas, carrying more than half a million slaves, were financed by Bristol merchants from 1698 to 1807, according to Bristol’s Free Museums and Historic Houses.
More Than Medicine
“Often discussed in the Black community, why is it that Henry Ford’s family can define his legacy and benefit from his legacy, the Dupont family can define his legacy and benefit from his legacy, the Rockefeller legacy, the Kennedy legacy …” he said.
“But when it comes to Black people, others get to define our legacy and others get to benefit from our legacy?”
“We endeavor to make sure that her [Lacks’s] family can derive benefit for generations to come, for her children and children yet unborn.”