Lacks, a black woman, suffered from cervical cancer while being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. A surgeon removed cells from her cervix without her consent during a procedure and this sample allowed a doctor at the hospital to create the first human cell line to reproduce outside the body.
The cell line, now known as HeLa cells, allowed scientists to experiment and create life-saving drugs, including the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, and genetic mapping, and helped advance the cancer and AIDS research.
“By honoring Henrietta Lacks, WHO recognizes the importance of addressing past scientific injustices and advancing racial equity in health and science,” said Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a statement. “It is also an opportunity to recognize women – especially women of color – who have made incredible but often invisible contributions to medical science.”
Several grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other members of Lack’s family attended the awards ceremony at the WHO Geneva office. His 87-year-old son, Lawrence Lacks, Sr., accepted the award on his behalf.
âWe are moved to receive this historic recognition from my mother, Henrietta Lacks – honoring who she was as a remarkable woman and the lasting impact of her HeLa cells. My mother’s once-hidden contributions are now rightly honored for their global impact, “Lawrence Lacks said in a statement.
âMy mother was a pioneer in life, giving back to her community, helping others live better lives and caring for others,â he added. “In death, she continues to help the world. Her legacy lives on in us and we thank you for saying her name – Henrietta Lacks.”
Family sues biotech company for non-consensual use of its cells
At the time of the Lacks procedure, taking cells from people without their consent was not against the protocols.
The lawsuit alleges that Thermo Fisher Scientific knowingly profits from the “unlawful conduct” of Johns Hopkins physicians and that its “ill-gotten gains belong by right to Ms. Lacks’ estate.”
He argues that the company “made a conscious choice to sell and mass produce the living tissues of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman, grandmother, and community leader, although the company knows that Ms. Lacks’ tissues have left her behind. been taken without his consent. by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a racially unfair medical system. “
The lawsuit claims that with this broad recognition, there is no way for Thermo Fisher Scientific to say that it did not know the history of its products containing HeLa cells and points to a page on the website of the ‘company which recognizes that the cells were taken without Lacks’ consent. According to the lawsuit, there are at least 12 products marketed by Thermo Fisher that include the HeLa cell line.
Thermo Fisher Scientific generates annual sales of approximately $ 35 billion, according to its website. CNN has contacted the company for comment.
CNN’s Taylor Romine contributed to this report.