WHO Honours Black Woman Whose Stolen Cells Transformed Medical Research

The World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, October 15 recognised Henrietta Lacks, a Black American woman, for her world-changing legacy with a special award.

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a Black mother of five who was dying of cervical cancer, went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for treatment.

Researchers took a sample of cells from Lacks’s body without her knowledge or consent, when she sought treatment for cervical cancer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, establishing the so-called HeLa cells that became the first ‘immortal line’ of human cells to divide indefinitely in a laboratory.

The invasive procedure led to a world-changing discovery: The cells thrived and multiplied in the laboratory, something no human cells had done before.

They were reproduced billions of times, contributed to nearly 75,000 studies, and helped pave the way for the HPV vaccine and produce drugs used to help patients with leukemia, H.I.V. and AIDS, and, recently, the development of Covid-19 vaccines without recognition to her family.

In recognising Henrietta Lacks, the WHO said it wanted to address a “historic wrong”, noting the global scientific community once hid her ethnicity and her real story.

“WHO acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices, and advancing racial equity in health and science,” Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “It’s also an opportunity to recognise women – particularly women of colour – who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.”


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