What would research and medicine be without Henrietta Lacks? This name means nothing to you ? He has not passed into posterity, despite his essential contribution to science.
Henrietta Lacks is an African-American mother of 5 who lived in the United States, near Baltimore, in the 1950s. When she fell ill, she went to Johns Hopkins Hospital, continued bleeding, and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She died on October 4, 1951, at only 31 years old.
During her treatment, cells from her tumor were taken and passed on to a researcher, without Henrietta Lacks knowing. The “HeLa” cell line, an acronym forged by its initials, was born, unbeknownst to the patient, robbed of her sample: the first immortal human cell line to be able to be cultivated in vitro, outside the human body, therefore, and capable of multiplying ad infinitum. The cells were mass produced without the consent of the Henrietta Lacks family. In total, more than 50 million tonnes of HeLa cells have been used worldwide, and they have been used in some 75,000 laboratory studies.
The family of Henrietta Lacks knew nothing about it until the 1970s. It was after the publication of a book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks“, written by journalist and science author Rebecca Skloot, that the case came to light in its full magnitude. This book inspired an American TV movie, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, first broadcast on the HBO channel in 2017.
Last July, the family of Henrietta Lacks announced their intention to file a lawsuit against pharmaceutical groups that have profited from research based on her cells. At a press conference, her granddaughter Kimberly Lacks denounced the fact that she had been treated “like a lab rat, like she wasn’t human, she had no family“. She had claimed”justice for this racist and unethical treatment“His grandson, Alfred Carter, said for his part that” the Lacks family “was”exploited for too long“and she said”It’s finish“.
Finally, the tribute
It was not until this Wednesday in October 2021 that the World Health Organization finally paid tribute to Henrietta Lacks: “It is to the cells of Henrietta Lacks that we owe the vaccine against the human papillomavirus, which protects against various cancers, including that of the uterus; the development of the polio vaccine, too; drugs for AIDS, hemophilia, leukemia, and Parkison’s disease“recognizes the WHO, which also pays tribute to the advances that its cells have enabled in reproductive medicine, including in vitro fertilization, genetic research, and precision medicine.
Alfred Carter, Henrietta Lacks’ grandson, was present at the tribute ceremony in Geneva, as was Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s oldest son, 87 years old. It was the latter who received the posthumous award on behalf of his mother. “My mother’s contributions, long hidden, are now rightly honored for their global impact “, did he declare.
Dr Tedros, Director-General of WHO, admitted that Henrietta Lacks was a victim in three respects: “What happened to Henrietta was wrong, for at least three reasons. First, she lived at a time when racial discrimination was legal in her society. Racial discrimination may no longer be legal in most countries, but it is still widespread in many countries. Second, Henrietta Lacks was exploited. She is one of many women of color whose bodies have been abused by science. She trusted the health system to be able to seek treatment. But the system took something from him without his knowledge or consent. And third, the medical technologies that have been developed out of this injustice have been used to perpetuate other injustices because they have not been shared fairly around the world.“
So it was the story of a triple injustice: racial, because it affected a black woman, treated in one of the few hospitals that provided care to people of color, at the time; ethical, because she robbed her of her cells without her consent; and which affects, even today, access to care, because the vaccines discovered thanks to the cells of Henrietta Lacks, are still not accessible to all the countries of the world, in the same way.