WHO honors Henrietta Lacks, whose HeLa cells led to medical research on polio, COVID

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Henrietta Lacks (Courtesy John Hopkins Medical)

(NewsNation Now) — Henrietta Lacks will be honored Wednesday by the World Health Organization for her contribution to medical science more than 70 years after her cells were taken without her knowledge or consent during a 1951 hospital visit in Baltimore, Maryland.

Descendents of Lacks, a Black woman, will meet with WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Switzerland to acknowledge her legacy and “contribution to revolutionary advancements in medical science,” WHO said in a statement.

Lacks, a Black woman, was terminally ill when doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed tissue from her tumor before she died of cervical cancer.

Her cells, which have been reproduced billions of times for medical research, were used in developing the polio vaccine, medications for HIV/AIDS and breakthroughs for in vitro fertilization. The WHO also noted that the “cells are currently used in vital research for COVID-19 response efforts.”

For decades since, Lacks’s cells, known medically as “HeLa cells” — from the first two letters of her first and last names — have been used and commercialized by the science community across the globe.

HeLa cells were discovered to have unique properties. While most cell samples died shortly after being removed from the body, her cells survived and thrived in laboratories. This exceptional quality made it possible to cultivate her cells indefinitely — they became known as the first immortalized human cell line — making it possible for scientists anywhere to reproduce studies using identical cells.

The remarkable science involved — and the impact on the Lacks family, some of whom suffered from chronic illnesses without health insurance — were documented in a 2010 bestselling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Oprah Winfrey portrayed her daughter in an HBO movie about the story.

The estate of Henrietta Lacks sued a biotechnology company on Oct. 4, saying it’s been selling her cervical cells without her knowledge or consent. The federal lawsuit filed in Baltimore says Thermo Fisher Scientific knowingly mass-produced and sold the tissue obtained through what it calls “a racially unjust medical system.”

The lawsuit wants a court to block their use without permission and force the $35 billion company to disgorge its profits from the HeLa cells.

Johns Hopkins Medicine says it reviewed its interactions with Lacks and her family over more than 50 years after the 2010 publication of Rebecca Skloot’s book. It says it “has never sold or profited from the discovery or distribution of HeLa cells and does not own the rights to the HeLa cell line,” but it has acknowledged an ethical responsibility.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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