October 14, 2021 – Henrietta Lacks, the Black woman whose cells were infamous without her knowledge for scientific research, was honored this week by the World Heath Organization as her family continued the fight to protect her legacy.
The cells of Lacks, commonly known as “HeLa”, are the only known human cells that survive and propagate outside man body. When a person dies, their cells usually die shortly after. But their cells have been used for decades in medical discoveries and life-saving treatments.
“In honor of Henrietta Lacks, the WHO recognizes the importance of tackling scientific injustice in the past, and promoting racial equality in health and science,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, at a ceremony in Geneva , Switzerland, on Wednesday. “It is also an opportunity to recognize women – especially women of color – who have made incredible but often invisible contributions to medical science.”
Lawrence Lacks, the 87-year-old son of Henrietta Lacks, accepted the award for her.
The ceremony came just over a week after Henrietta Lacks’ family took action against the widespread – and unauthorized – commercial use of HeLa sellen, as well as to seek “ownership” of the cells.
On October 4, the Lacks family’s estate filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific, a pharmaceutical company, for selling large quantities of HeLa cells at a high price tag – the company earns nearly $ 35 billion in revenue each year – while the Misfamily has never benefited financially, according to the lawsuit.
In 1951, the year doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital cutting tissue from Lacks’ cervix while she was being treated for cervical cancer, doctors did not have to ask permission to take samples.
But the lawsuit alleges that the multibillion-dollar company continued to generate incredible amounts of revenue, even after knowing the origin of the HeLa cells.
The case asks the court to order Thermo Fisher Scientific “to remove the full amount of its net profit by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks.”
HeLa cells are valued anywhere between $ 400 and thousands of dollars per bottle, The Wall Street Journal report.
With HeLa cells, scientists can perform endless tests to get better to understand the human body and what it can do, what scientists have done to understand the effects of polio on the body, what has helped make the polio vaccine.
HeLa cells were also taken into space to understand the body’s response to zero gravity.
Restoring Confidence – Global
For some, a Lacks family victory in court turns a controversial page into American history, one full of controversy.
“If you think about the context of when their cells were taken 70 years ago, what in America with all this ‘medical experimentation’ was like medical racism,” said civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, who shared is part of the legal team representing the Lacks family, he said at a recent press conference.
One notable example cited 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 examined 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 very skeptical about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, with medical mistrust of previous events playing a major role, studies show.
“This [lawsuit] is historic, not only because it would benefit her family, but ultimately America could have to deal with trying to do better, to be better, when it comes to medical racism, “Crump said.
Other peoples also address racist past, through Lacks’ story.
In England, a life-size, bronze statue of Lacks was unveiled at the University of Bristol on October 4.
It is the first public sculpture of a Black woman – made by a Black woman – in the United Kingdom, the BBC report.
“Given her heritage as an African-American woman, and Bristol’s link to the slave trade, this is an important statement for Bristol,” said Helen Wilson-Roe, the artist who created the sculpture, said at the unveiling ceremony.
More than 2,000 trips from Africa to America, with more than half a million slaves, were funded by Bristol merchants from 1698 to 1807, according to Bristol’s Free Museums and Historic Houses.
More than medicine
A Lakes family win in court could not only represent justice in the health care system, but also that Blacks are seen as equal players in society, Crump said.
“Often discussed in the Black community, why is it that the family of Henry Ford can define his legacy and benefit from his legacy, the Dupont family can his neilittenskip and take advantage of his legacy, the Rockefeller legacy, the Kennedy legacy … ”he said.
“But when it comes to Black people, do others get to define our legacy and do others benefit from our legacy?”
“We are trying to ensure that she [Lacks’s] family can benefit for future generations, for their children and children still unborn. ”