In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a black mother of five who was dying of cervical cancer, went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for treatment.
Without her knowledge or consent, doctors removed a sample of cells from the tumor in her cervix. They gave the sample to a researcher at Johns Hopkins University who was trying to find cells that would survive indefinitely so that researchers could experiment with it.
The invasive procedure led to a world-changing discovery: The cells thrived and multiplied in the lab, something that had never been done before by human cells. They were reproduced billions of times, contributed to nearly 75,000 studies and helped pave the way for the HPV vaccine, drugs used to help patients with HIV and AIDS and, most recently, the development of Covid-19 vaccines.
On Wednesday, 70 years after Ms. Lacks died in the “colored ward” of Johns Hopkins Hospital and was buried in an unmarked grave, the World Health Organization honored the contribution she unwittingly made to science and medicine.
At a ceremony in Geneva, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director General of WHO, presented the Director General Award to Mrs. Lacks’ son, Lawrence Lacks, who was 16 when his mother died on October 4, 1951.
Victoria Baptiste, Ms. Lacks’ great-granddaughter, said the family was “humiliated” by the presentation and recognition of the legacy of “a black woman from the tobacco fields of Clover, Virginia.”
“Henrietta’s contributions, once hidden, are now rightly honored for their global impact,” said Ms Baptiste, a registered nurse.
Soumya Swaminathan, the chief scientist at WHO, said about 50 million tons of the cells, known as HeLa cells, have been used by researchers and scientists around the world.
“This is just huge, when you think about it,” said Dr. Swaminathan. “I can’t think of any other cell line or lab reagent that has been used to this extent and led to so much progress.”
Miss Lacks moved with her husband, David Lacks, from Virginia to Baltimore in the 1940s in search of better opportunities for her family, according to the Henrietta Lacks Initiative, an organization founded by her grandchildren.
She went to Johns Hopkins for help after experiencing severe vaginal bleeding. She was 31 when she died, eight months after learning she had cervical cancer.
Neither she nor her family were told that tissue samples from her tumor had been given to Dr. George Gey, a Johns Hopkins medical researcher.
The cells derived from the sample were uniquely resilient, doubling every 24 hours and successfully growing outside the human body for more than 36 hours, according to the Henrietta Lacks Initiative.
The breakthrough thrilled scientists and researchers who used them to develop the first polio vaccine and produce drugs for other diseases, including Parkinson’s, leukemia and the flu.
But Ms. Lacks’ identity remained hidden from investigators. Her family didn’t learn about the uses of her cells until 1973, when scientists called them for blood samples so they could study their genes, according to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a bestseller by Rebecca Skloot that was also turned into a movie. with Oprah Winfrey.
Miss Lacks’ descendants have expressed pride at what her cells have accomplished, as well as furious at the way she was treated by doctors. That anger has only been compounded by the commercialization of her cells.
dr. Gey, who was studying Ms. Lacks’ tissue, did not benefit from his research. But over the decades, biotech companies have commercialized and sold the cells, while Ms. Lacks’ family has never received any compensation.
“Fortunes have been made,” said Dr. Teddy Wednesday. “Science has progressed. Nobel prizes have been won and most importantly many lives have been saved.”
“No doubt Henrietta would have been happy that her suffering saved others,” he continued. “But the end justifies the means.”
On Oct. 4, her descendants sued Thermo Fisher Scientific, a biotechnology company they accused of having “made a conscious decision to sell and mass-produce Henrietta Lacks’ living tissue,” according to the federal lawsuit.
The family said it demanded that Thermo Fisher pay $9.9 million and relinquish “the entire amount of the net profits it has obtained from commercializing the HeLa cell line” to Ms. Lacks’ estate.
At a press conference, Christopher Seeger, a family lawyer, suggested that more biotech companies could be sued.
Thermo Fisher “shouldn’t feel too alone as they’ll be getting a lot of company soon,” said Mr. Seeger.
Thermo Fisher, based in Waltham, Massachusetts, did not immediately respond to a message asking for comment.
dr. Tedros said Wednesday that the injustice that began with the removal of Ms. Lacks’ cells had continued. For example, he noted that the vaccines that help prevent and protect cervical cancer from Covid-19 remain inaccessible to poor countries.
Another speaker, Groesbeck Parham, a co-chair of the Director General’s expert group on cervical cancer elimination, said the most effective way to recognize Ms. Lacks’ contribution would be to end health and science inequalities. .
He said, “It is in this way that we truly honor Ms. Henrietta Lacks and immortalize her miracle.”