Oct 13, 2021 - Health

WHO honors Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were taken without her consent

A statue of Henrietta Lacks is unveiled on the 70th anniversary of her death at Royal Fort House in Bristol.

A statue of Henrietta Lacks is unveiled on the 70th anniversary of her death at Royal Fort House in Bristol, England on Oct. 4, 2021. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images

The chief of the World Health Organization on Wednesday awarded the Director-General’s Award to the late Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were unknowingly taken from her in the 1950s and used for scientific research, AP reports.

The big picture: The recognition comes more than 10 years after the publication of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," Rebecca Skloot’s book that details the discrimination that Black Americans face in health care and the scientific breakthroughs that were discovered because of Lacks' cells.

  • Lacks, who died of cervical cancer on Oct. 4, 1951 at the age of 31, had tissues unknowingly taken from her at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore while she was seeking treatment for cervical cancer.
  • Doctors used the tissue to successfully clone human cells for the first time. The medical breakthrough was marred by the revelation that came years later that the doctors had removed Lacks' tissue without her knowledge.
  • HeLa cells — derived from the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks' first and last names — have been used to develop the polio vaccine, genetic mapping and COVID-19 vaccines.

What he's saying: "What happened to Henrietta was wrong," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during the ceremony honoring Lacks, per AP.

  • "Henrietta Lacks was exploited. She is one of many women of color whose bodies have been misused by science," Tedros 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."
  • "The medical technologies that were developed from this injustice have been used to perpetuate further injustice because they have not been shared equitably around the world," Tedros added.

Go deeper: Henrietta Lacks' estate sues biotech company over alleged use of stolen cells

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