UN Honors Henrietta Lacks, Whose Cells Reshaped World Medical Research |


This Wednesday, the UN World Health Organization (WHOCEO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus honored her world-changing legacy with a special honor.

In 1951, when Ms. Lacks sought treatment, researchers took a biopsy from her body without her knowledge or consent, and her cells became the first “immortal” cell line, now known as “HeLa cells.”

Payback for injustice

As the WHO notes, the global scientific community once covered up her race and her true history, which is shocking – a historical error that Wednesday’s admission hopes to correct.

In honoring Ms. Lacks, Tedros said the UN agency “recognizes the importance of addressing past scientific injustices and promoting racial justice in health and science.”

He said the award is also “an opportunity to recognize women, especially women of color, who have made incredible but often invisible contributions to medical science.”


The award was received at the WHO office in Geneva by Lawrence Lax, Ms Lux’s 87-year-old son.

He is one of the last living relatives who knew her personally. Mr. Lux was accompanied by several of Henrietta Lacks’ grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other family members.

Mr Lacks said the family was moved to receive this historic recognition in honor of “a wonderful woman and her long-term exposure to her HeLa cells.”

“My mother’s contribution, which was once hidden, is now well recognized for its global impact,” he said.

“My mother was a pioneer in life, helping her community, helping others live better and caring for others. After her death, she continues to help the world. Her legacy lives on in us, and we thank you for giving her name – Henrietta Lacks. ”

According to the WHO, women of color continue to be disproportionately affected by cervical cancer. V COVID-19 The pandemic also highlighted multiple manifestations of health inequities that persist among marginalized communities around the world.

Studies in various countries consistently confirm that black women die from cervical cancer several times more often than white women. Today, 19 of the 20 countries with the highest burden of cervical cancer are in Africa.

Cervical cancer strategy

Last year, which marked the 100th birthday of Henrietta Lacks, also coincided with the launch WHO Global Strategy to Accelerate the Elimination of Cervical Cancer, an initiative supported by Ms. Lax’s family.

Her relatives have also joined WHO in advocating for equitable access to the HPV vaccine, which protects against a range of cancers, including cervical cancer.


Although WHO was prequalified more than 12 years ago, supply constraints and high prices still prevent adequate doses from reaching girls in low- and middle-income countries.

As of 2020, less than 25% of low-income countries and less than 30% of lower-middle-income countries had access to HPV vaccine through their national immunization programs, compared with over 85% of high-income countries.

For Assistant CEO for Strategic Priorities and Special Adviser to CEO Princess Nothemba Simelel, “it is not acceptable for you to have access to the life-saving HPV vaccine based on your race, ethnicity, or where you were born.”

Recalling that the HPV vaccine was developed using Henrietta Lacks’ cells, she added: “We owe her and her family equal access to this revolutionary vaccine.”

Wonderful contribution

As a young mother, Henrietta Lacks and her husband were raising five children near Baltimore when she fell ill.

She went to Johns Hopkins City Medical Center, one of the few leading hospitals at the time serving African Americans, after extensive vaginal bleeding and a diagnosis of cervical cancer. Despite treatment, she died on October 4, 1951 at the age of 31.

During treatment, researchers took samples of her tumor. This HeLa cell line was a scientific breakthrough: the first immortal human cell line capable of dividing indefinitely in the laboratory to stimulate research.

The cameras were mass-produced for profit, with no recognition from her family. More than 50,000,000 metric tons of HeLa cells have been distributed worldwide, part of more than 75,000 studies.

In addition to HPV and polio vaccines, they have enabled the development of drugs for HIV / AIDS, hemophilia, leukemia and Parkinson’s disease; breakthroughs in reproductive health, including in vitro fertilization; research on chromosomal conditions, cancer, gene mapping and precision medicine.

They are currently being used in research to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Turquoise tribute

After receiving the award, family and WHO headed to the shores of Lake Geneva to watch the famous urban water body Jet d’Eau glow in turquoise – a color that indicates cervical cancer awareness.

It is the first of several world monuments to glow blue from now until November 17 to mark the first anniversary of the start of the global campaign of destruction.

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