It’s time to Break It Down!
On February 3, 2010, I posted a blog about the story of Henrietta Lacks. Mrs. Lacks is a little known (to much of the world) legend (in the fields of cervical oncology and cellular biology). If you haven’t heard of her, it’s likely due to the fact she earned her fabled status on the patient side of medical miracles, not the scientist or physician side.
Last Wednesday, the World Health Organization honored the late Henrietta Lacks, whose cells have been used for innovative scientific research for decades, with an award in recognition of her contributions to the advancement of medical science.
Lacks, a Black woman, was suffering from cervical cancer when she was being treated at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. A surgeon removed cells from her cervix without her consent during a procedure and that sample enabled 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 medicine including the polio vaccine, in-vitro fertilization and gene mapping as well as helped advance cancer and AIDS research.
Lacks, 31, died that same year from cancer, but her influence on the medical science field lived on, leading to the WHO Director-General’s award.
In his statement on the matter, Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “In honouring Henrietta Lacks, WHO acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices, and advancing racial equity in health and science. It’s also an opportunity to recognize women — particularly women of colour — who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.”
Several of Lacks’ family members, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, attended the award ceremony at the WHO office in Geneva. Her 87-year-old son, Lawrence Lacks, Sr., accepted the award on her behalf.
Lawrence said, “We are moved to receive this historic recognition of my mother, Henrietta Lacks — honouring who she was as a remarkable woman and the lasting impact of her HeLa cells. My mother’s contributions, once hidden, are now being rightfully honored for their global impact.
My mother was a pioneer in life, giving back to her community, helping others live a better life and caring for others. In death she continues to help the world. Her legacy lives on in us and we thank you for saying her name — Henrietta Lacks.”
Below, is her story, as conveyed in my initial blog on the subject:
This past Monday was the first day of February. As we all know, February is the shortest month of the year, having 28 days, with every fourth year, a Leap Year, having 29 days (the next one in 2012). But did you know, during one period, February had 29 days, and 30 days during Leap Years? Augustus Caesar is said to have taken a day from February to add to August, so that the month named in his honor would have 31 days. Moreover, February has had several names, and has only been known as February for a little more than a century.
You also probably know that February has the distinction of having been designated Black History Month in the United States and Canada. As such, there is usually an infusion of ethnic TV programming, media coverage, civic, and religious observances.
In framing topics for exploration, I have seldom settled on a topic, or even a theme, the day before posting. It is most often the truest expression of “just in time” delivery. However, I have decided to depart from my pattern. Over four Wednesdays in February, I plan to explore of four African Americans who made outstanding contributions to this Country; their Country…our Country; America, and frankly in some cases, the world!
- Who? There are many African Americans, who not only have made enormous contributions to society, but who garnered a fair share of fame and notoriety for their pursuits. Today’s subject is not among that list. Yet, Henrietta Lacks is a giant in terms of the relative importance of her contributions to life as we know it today. Ms. Lacks lived only 31 years, and has been dead nearly twice as long as she lived; succumbing to cervical cancer in 1951.
- What? Ms. Lacks, a mother of five (2 daughters and 3 sons) died from a virulent strain of cervical cancer. During the course of her treatment, doctors removed cells from her, for research purposes…without her knowledge. This was a common practice then and now.
- When? On February 1, 1951, shortly after participating in a march in New York to support finding a cure for polio, Ms. Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, where she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Though treated for the disease, she would live only 6 more months.
- Where? Ms. Lacks was born Henrietta Pleasant, in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1920. After marrying David Lacks, they eventually migrated to Baltimore County, Maryland where David worked in a shipyard. Ms. Lacks was buried in her native home community, in Halifax County, Virginia.
- Why? In most folks’ blueprint of choice, they would acquire fame and notoriety in life, if at all. For some though, it comes, only through death. This was the case with Henrietta. She was posthumously catapulted to what measure of notoriety she has attained because of the unique characteristics of her cells.
- How? Researchers at Johns Hopkins discovered a scientific breakthrough related to Ms. Lacks’ cells. In a departure from anything the scientists had seen before, the cells culled from Ms. Lacks continued to grow, outside of her body, and after her death. In fact, they did not just survive, they multiplied. In a circular irony, cells from Ms. Lacks’ culture were used to help Dr. Jonas Salk develop a vaccine for polio in 1955. Of course, Ms. Lacks had marched to help find a cure for that disease just four years earlier.
The story of Henrietta Lacks is powerful in its simplicity. Viewed in the absence of the critical lens of inquiry, it has the sound of saga about a young woman who died too soon; but whose death provided the gift of life, and healthier lives for countless others. In reality it is that…and so very much more.
Henrietta was a poor black woman who was treated in some instances as incidental to the research conducted by the staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Eventually, as the story gained traction and became more widely disseminated, the precious cells Ms. Lacks “donated” given the name HeLa, in her honor.
The chief researcher in this matter, Dr. George Gey, had been searching for a way to keep cells alive outside the body. The cells taken from Henrietta were so incredibly aggressive that in a few short months, the cancer had spread throughout her entire body. The very properties that led to Ms. Lacks’ demise, most likely served as the catalyst for Dr. Gey’s success in inducing cells to continue growing for more than a few weeks outside the body. Those properties also led to breakthroughs in cancer research, drug testing, the development of Dr. Salk’s polio vaccine, insight into facilitating the survival of other cells, and ultimately, a new paradigm in biology.
It was discovered eventually, that HeLa cells are so ubiquitous that they literally took over countless cell samples, resulting in contaminating samples, and invalidating research results. That is unfortunate. But I would argue the real victims in the HeLa story are the Lacks. In addition to not gaining permission toextract Henrietta’s cell tissue for research purposes, the virtual explosion of the HeLa phenomenon had been unfolding for decades before the family ever learned of it.
The growth and sale of HeLa, which continues unabated today, has generated countless millions of dollars in sales revenue, lead to saving lives all across America, and around the world, and furthered medical research initiatives for nearly 60 years. So, what have the Lacks gained from this you may ask?
Nothing; nada; zero; zilch!
Think on that “Profile in Black History: Henrietta Lacks!” Today, you got the remix. “WHO Honors Henrietta Lacks: Better Late Than Never!”
I’m done; holla back!
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