- In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, died of cervical cancer at 31 years old. Now 70 years later, she’s being posthumously honored for her sacrifices with an award from the World Health Organization.
- WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus bestowed Lacks with the Director-General’s award for her contributions to medical science — even if those contributions were made unknowingly.
- Without Henrietta’s knowledge or consent, doctors took cells from her tumor. Henrietta’s cells never died and continued to replicate outside of her body. Her immortal cells became a cornerstone of medical research.
This week, nearly 70 years ago to the day, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus bestowed Lacks with the Director-General’s award for her contributions to medical science — even if those contributions were made unknowingly.Read More
Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s 87-year-old son, received the award on behalf of his mother at the WHO Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Lawrence is one of the last living relatives who personally knew Henrietta. Several of Henrietta’s grandchildren, great-grand children and other family members were in attendance.
“We are moved to receive this historic recognition of my mother, Henrietta Lacks — honoring who she was as a remarkable woman and the lasting impact of her HeLa cells. My mother’s contributions, once hidden, are now being rightfully honored for their global impact,” Lawrence says. “My mother was a pioneer in life — giving back to her community, helping others live a better life and caring for others. In death she continues to help the world. Her legacy lives on in us and we thank you for saying her name — Henrietta Lacks.”
It was 1951 when Henrietta sought medical attention at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was experiencing vaginal bleeding and was ultimately diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer.
Without Henrietta’s knowledge or consent, doctors took cells from her tumor for the head of gynecology’s research. According to The Johns Hopkins Hospital, for years, Dr. George Gey, who was a prominent cancer and virus researcher, had been collecting cells from patients who came to the hospital with cervical cancer. But each sample quickly died in his lab.
Henrietta’s cells, however, remarkably never died and continued to replicate outside of her body, which had never happened before. Meanwhile, Henrietta underwent harsh treatments at Johns Hopkins to little avail — she died less than ten months later at 31. She left behind her husband and five children, the youngest of whom was less than two years old.
Henrietta’s immortal cells, called “HeLa” — an abbreviation of her name, Henrietta Lacks — quickly became a cornerstone of medical research. Since the cells would never die and continue to replicate, these cells could be stored and used for tens of thousands of medical studies.
HeLa cells were used to create the polio and human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines, study Down syndrome and revolutionize cancer research. They also have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome and to learn more about how viruses work, according to Johns Hopkins. HeLa cells are the most widely used human cells in all of science and have earned medical supply companies billions of dollars.
The Lacks family was not informed that part of their mother was still alive until decades later, and they have never received compensation.
Cervical Cancer and HPV
Cervical cancer is a type of gynecologic cancer that’s typically detected through what is known today as the Pap smear. During this test, your doctor will collect a sample of cells from your cervix (using a small brush or spatula). The cells are then examined under a microscope for abnormalities, including cancer and changes that could indicate pre-cancer.
There are different types of cervical cancer, Dr. Jose Alejandro Rauh-Hain, a gynecologic oncologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, tells SurvivorNet. Most of the time, the cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma, he says. There are other unusual histologies, but these are the most common.
Cervical cancer is unique in that it’s usually preventable with the HPV vaccine. The vaccine is typically given to children before they’re sexually active, as HPV is transmitted through sexual contact.
“The vast majority of humans in the U.S., both men and women, will eventually get infected with human papillomavirus,” Dr. Allen Ho, director of the Head and Neck Cancer Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, tells SurvivorNet. “The important thing to know about HPV is that there are many different strains, and only a couple of them tend to be more cancer inducing.”
Less than 1% of the population who get infected happen to have the cancer-causing virus that, somehow, their immune system fails to clear, Dr. Ho adds. That’s why it’s important to get vaccinated. Contrary to some detrimental misinformation circulated online, the HPV vaccine is entirely safe.
“We recommend strongly that children are vaccinated against HPV to prevent cervical cancer, but also to prevent head and neck cancer,” Dr. Jessica Geiger, a medical oncologist specializing in head and neck cancer at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center, tells SurvivorNet.
Roots of Mistrust
Henrietta’s story is just one of the many examples of institutionalized racism toward Black Americans within the medical community, which has created a deep mistrust in many Black Americans that directly impacts cancer outcomes.
The most infamous of these unethical studies was the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, a 40-year experiment by the United States government that purposely infected more than 600 Black men with syphilis. The aim of the study was not to treat these men, but to see what would happen if the disease went untreated, effectively a death sentence for many.
Black Americans have the highest cancer death rate, as well as the shortest survival time, of any racial group in America. While socioeconomic disparities can partially explain this shocking statistic, it cannot be ignored that many Black Americans are less likely to get cancer screenings due to this long history of mistrust.
Contributing: Reid Champlin