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13 October 2021

WHO pays tribute to Henrietta Lacks for ‘world changing’ contribution

13 October 2021

The legacy of a “remarkable woman” whose cells have led to crucial medical breakthroughs has been celebrated for the global impact she had.

In a special ceremony held by global health leaders, Henrietta Lacks was posthumously given an award to honour her legacy which has helped save “countless lives”.

Her family said her recognition was allowing them to “reclaim her name” and called for equitable access to medical care for all around the world.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it wants to recognise the “world-changing” contribution that Mrs Lacks has made to medical science, but also accept that she was exploited due to racial discrimination.

Mrs Lacks, a mother of five, died 70 years ago on October 4 1951.

Her 87-year-old son Lawrence Lacks, who was just 17 when she died, received the award on her behalf at the ceremony in Geneva.

Mrs Lacks, born in 1920 in the US, died from an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951 and samples of her cells were collected by doctors without her or her family’s knowledge.

It was during surgery that a sample of cells was taken from the tumour in Louisiana-born Ms Lacks’ body before she died in Baltimore, aged 31.

The cells were sent to a laboratory where they were found to be the first living human cells ever to survive and multiply outside the human body.

Victoria Baptiste, Henrietta Lacks’ great granddaughter said: “My family stands in solidarity with WHO and our sisters around the world, to ensure that no other wife, mother or sister dies needlessly from cervical cancer.

“As a registered nurse, I am proud to  be here today to honour my great grandmother’s legacy by advocating to ensure equitable access to the breakthroughs that her healer cells have advanced, such as HPV and Covid-19 vaccines.”

“We are reclaiming her name, and her story and legacy lives on in us, and we thank you for saying her name, Henrietta Lacks.”

Research on the cells led to the polio vaccine, gene mapping and IVF treatment among other advances and resulted in her being named the “mother” of modern medicine.

Studies on the cells also led to the development of the human papillomavirus vaccine, which protects against various cancers, including cervical cancer.

The cells became known as HeLa cells, taking the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ first and last names.

A statue of Henrietta Lacks was unveiled on the 70th anniversary of her death at Royal Fort House in Bristol (PA) (PA Wire)

Speaking at the ceremony, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general spoke of how the racial inequality Mrs Lacks suffered is still an issue and he also honoured other women of colour who have contributed to science.

He said: “Acknowledging the wrongs of the past is essential for building trust for the future, we also recognise the extraordinary potential that her legacy continues to offer.

“There are many more lives we can save by working for racial justice and equity, we stand in solidarity with marginalised patients and communities all over the world who are not consulted, engaged or empowered in their own care.”

He added: “We affirm that in medicine and in science, Black Lives Matter, Henrietta Lacks life mattered, and still matters.

“Today is also an opportunity to recognise those women of colour who have made incredible, but often unseen contributions to medical science.”

HeLa cells are used in almost every major hospital and science-based university in the world.

More than 50,000,000 metric tonnes of HeLa cells have been distributed around the world, the subjects of over 75,000 studies

But it was only in 1975 that by chance the family found out about her legacy.

Earlier this month, a statue of Mrs Lacks was unveiled at the University of Bristol.

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