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Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were taken without her consent, is honored by WHO

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a black mother of five who was dying of cervical cancer, went to johns hopkins hospital for treatment in baltimore

Without her knowledge or consent, doctors removed a sample of cells from a tumor in her cervix. He gave the sample to a researcher at Johns Hopkins University who was trying to find cells that lived indefinitely so that researchers could experiment on them.

The invasive process led to a world-changing discovery: cells grew and multiplied in the laboratory, something that human cells had not previously done. They have been reproduced billions of times, contributing to nearly 75,000 studies and paving the way for the development of the HPV vaccine, drugs used to help patients with HIV and AIDS and, most recently, Covid-19 vaccines. helped.

On Wednesday, 70 years after Ms Lax died in a “colored ward” at Johns Hopkins Hospital and was buried in an unmarked grave, the World Health Organization inadvertently honored her contributions to science and medicine.

During a ceremony in GenevaWHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus presented the Director-General’s Award to Ms. Lax’s son, Lawrence Lax, who was 16 when his mother died on October 4, 1951.

Victoria Baptiste, Ms Lax’s great-granddaughter, said the family was “humbled” by the presentation and acknowledgment of the legacy of “Clover, a black woman from the tobacco fields of Virginia”.

“Henrietta’s contributions, once hidden, are now being honored for her global impact,” said Ms Baptiste, a registered nurse.

World Health Organization lead scientist Soumya Swaminathan said about 50 million metric tons of cells, known as HeLa cells, have been used by researchers and scientists around the world.

“It’s huge, when you think about it,” Dr Swaminathan said. “I cannot think of any other single cell line or laboratory reagent that has been used to such an extent and has resulted in so much progress.”

Ms. Lax moved from Virginia to Baltimore with her husband, David Lax, during the 1940s in search of better opportunities for her family, according to Henrietta lost the initiative, an organization founded by his grandchildren.

She went to Johns Hopkins for help after experiencing severe vaginal bleeding. She was 31 when she died, eight months after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Neither she nor her family were told that her tumor tissue samples had been given to Johns Hopkins medical researcher Dr. George Gay.

According to the Henrietta Lacks Initiative, the cells obtained from the sample were uniquely flexible, doubling every 24 hours and managed to grow successfully outside the human body for more than 36 hours.

The success thrilled scientists and researchers who used them to develop the first polio vaccine and to produce drugs for other diseases, including Parkinson’s, leukemia and the flu.

but Ms. Lax The researchers had hidden the identity. Her family didn’t learn about the use of her cells until 1973, when scientists called her for a blood sample so they could study her genes, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling book that was also replaced In a movie with Oprah Winfrey.

Ms Lax’s descendants have expressed pride in what her cells have achieved, but also fury at how they were treated by doctors. That fury is only exacerbated by the commercialization of his cells.

Dr. Gay, who studied Ms. Lacks’ tissue, was to no avail from her research. But for decades, biotech companies have commercialized and sold the cells, while Ms. Lax’s family never received any compensation.

“Luck has been made,” Dr Tedros said on Wednesday. “Science has moved on. Nobel prizes have been won and, most importantly, many lives have been saved.”

“There is no doubt that Henrietta would have been pleased that her suffering had saved others,” he continued. “But the end does not justify the means.”

His descendants on 4 October Sue Thermo Fisher Scientific, a biotechnology company, which he accused of “making a conscious choice to sell and mass-produce Henrietta Lacks’ living tissue,” according to the federal lawsuit.

The family said it was demanding that Thermo Fisher pay $9.9 million and that Ms. Lax’s assets “destroy the full amount of its net profit gained by commercializing the HeLa cell line”.

During a news conference, family lawyer Christopher Seeger suggested that more biotech companies could be sued.

Thermo Fisher “shouldn’t feel too lonely, because they’re going to have a lot of company very soon,” Mr Seeger said.

Thermo Fisher, based in Waltham, Mass., did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Dr. Tedros said on Wednesday that the injustice that began with the removal of Ms. Lax’s cells was continuing. For example, he said that vaccines that help prevent cervical cancer and protect against Covid-19 are inaccessible to poor countries.

Another speaker, Grosbeck Parham, co-chair of the Director General’s Expert Group on Cervical Cancer Elimination, said the most effective way to recognize Ms. Lax’s contribution would be to prevent inequalities in health and science.

“In this way we truly honor Mrs. Henrietta Lacks and immortalize her miracle,” he said.

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