New Delhi: Cells of Henrietta Lacks — popularly known as ‘HeLa cells’ in the medical community, are responsible for various important medical breakthroughs including polio vaccine, cervical cancer or Human Papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine and genetic mapping. Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who died of cervical cancer on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31 at the John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
The John Hopkins hospital took out tissues from her body without her consent, leading to the development of the first ‘immortal line’ of human cells to divide indefinitely in a laboratory. Henrietta Lacks or HeLa cells have been instrumental in the development of various life-saving medical breakthroughs like the development of the polio vaccine and drugs for HIV/AIDS, haemophilia, leukaemia, and Parkinson’s disease. HeLa cells have also been vital in the development of breakthroughs in reproductive health, including in vitro fertilisation.
On October 13, the 70 th death anniversary of Henrietta, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized the contribution that ‘HeLa’ cells have had in saving millions of lives and also address the “historic wrong” done by not taking Henrietta’s consent before using her cells and also further wrong done by hiding her identity.
“WHO acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices, and advancing racial equity in health and science,” Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. He further added, “It’s also an opportunity to recognise women — particularly women of colour — who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.”
Addressing the unethical means by which an African American woman’s cells were procured, Tedros said, “Henrietta Lacks was exploited. She is one of many women of colour whose bodies have been misused by science,” he said. “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.
According to WHO, over 50 million metric tonnes of HeLa cells have been distributed across the globe and has been instrumental in over 75,000 medical studies, including the development of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“But the end does not justify the means. All it would have taken was for someone to do her the honour of asking. In honouring Henrietta Lacks today, WHO acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past injustices and advancing racial equity in health and science. Acknowledging the wrongs of the past is essential for building trust for the future. We also recognize the extraordinary potential that her legacy continues to offer. There are many more lives we can save by working for racial justice and equity,” said Tedros.
He concluded by saying, “We stand in solidarity with marginalized patients and communities all over the world who are not consulted, engaged or empowered in their own care. We affirm that in medicine and in science. BlackLivesMatter. Henrietta Lacks’s life mattered, and still matters.”
Recently, Henrieta Lacks’ family sued the pharmaceutical company — Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., for reproducing and selling “stolen” cells for a profit. According to American law, it is now illegal to extract a patient’s cells for research without their consent.
“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,” reads the suit, filed on October 4.