History of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa Cells
In 1951, a Johns Hopkins physician took a sample of cervical cells from Henrietta Lacks, aged 21, without Mrs. Lacks’ knowledge or consent during assessment for cervical cancer. She died shortly after from cancer, never knowing that her cells would form the basis for numerous medical and pharmaceutical advances.
The cells taken from Mrs. Lacks during a biopsy for cervical cancer were placed in a petri dish, where unlike most cells, they continued to divide. Mrs. Lacks’ cancer cells were the first of their type to live outside of the body, and to reproduce instead of dying in vitro.
For decades, Lacks’ family had no idea that the cells from their relative were still alive and being used in research. The cells, originally taken from Henrietta Lacks, would go on to be known as HeLa cells.
Pharmaceutical and Medical System Profits from HeLa Cells
The cell line that originated from Henrietta Lacks was the first to be “immortalized” and continues to be used today as “HeLa” cells, shortened from “Henrietta Lacks”. HeLa cells have become a cornerstone of pharmaceutical and medical development, including multiple Nobel Prize-winning discoveries.
Most medicines that have been developed since the 1950s, have been tested on HeLa cells, including use in over 74,000 research studies. The continued viability of the cells has led to a number of medical advances, medication, vaccines, cosmetics, cancer, and AIDS treatments and medical procedures such as IVF.
Henrietta Lacks Family Seeks Justice
Numerous biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies have profited for decades by manufacturing, developing, and selling products using cells stolen from Henrietta Lacks without her consent. These companies have unjustly enriched themselves at the expense of Mrs. Lacks for far too long.
The family of Henrietta Lacks, represented by Chris Seeger of Seeger Weiss LLP, along with civil rights attorney, Ben Crump, is seeking unspecified damages and compensation. The family also indicates that they are seeking justice for the treatment of Lacks and for years of unethical treatment of African Americans in the U.S. medical system.
Historic Racial Injustice in the U.S. Medical System
The Henrietta Lacks family claims that the treatment of Lacks and the historic treatment of African Americans in the medical system has resulted in massive financial gains for the pharmaceutical industry and medical system.
The family and representatives have claimed that Henrietta Lacks HeLa Cell developments are an example of injustice the African American community has been subject, with to decades of medical mistreatment and experimentation. Often this has included dangerous, involuntary, and non-therapeutic experimentation which has been practiced and documented since 19th century.
Historically, African Americans were falsely portrayed as having higher pain tolerance, less in need of anesthesia, fearful, distrustful, non-compliant. There was often little danger black people would learn of their contributions to medical developments due to illiteracy in the population, sometimes decreed by law as blacks were prohibited from learning to read.
Famous Surgeon James Marion Sims, the “father or modern gynecology” developed most of his surgical techniques to help women through childbirth by experimenting on female slaves who had not been given anesthesia. Even after slavery was ended, women were subject to forced sterilizations known as “Mississippi Appendectomy”.
African American men have also been subjected to extreme medical abuses. This has not been limited to the “Tuskegee experiments” in which African American men with syphilis were left untreated for decades even though they had been told they were receiving medication.
Ebb Cade, African American male who was the first test subject for the Manhattan Project (Human Radiation) after getting into a car accident, was injected with plutonium several times without his consent. He was denied treatment for bone fractures for 3 weeks and 15 of his teeth were extracted to examine results of radiation.
Blacks were sent to separate hospitals and subjected to different treatment, lack of treatment or outright abuse. This has led to a legacy of racial injustice in the U.S. medical system and research and has resulted in widespread distrust and resentment of the health system in the Black community which continues to impact African Americans each day.
Medical Inequality Still Exists in Black Communities
The African American population continues to suffer health disparities despite civil rights developments. Fear of the medical system may have led to increases and lack of treatment for chronic illnesses and resulted in continuing health inequalities.
African Americans suffer higher infant mortality and lower survival rates in birth complications. The black population continues to have higher rates of HIV and Hepatitis C infection and mortality, higher prevalence of chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
The community also has lower survival rates of black women with breast cancer even though mammogram rate is about equal and actual diagnosis rate is higher for white women. Imbalance in prostate cancer occurrence, treatment and survival in African American men may also be similar.
Most recently, rates of COVID infection and mortality have shown inequalities in the African American community when compared to other groups. That Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken from her, without consent or acknowledgement and later used, for profit, is shown to be an example of the maltreatment of African American men and women, by the medical system.
U.S. Congressional Recognition for Henrietta Lacks
In 2019, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act to acknowledge her contribution to medicine and to address access to government-funded research for underserved populations. The bill was signed into law in 2021.
On July 25, 2023, U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin and Congressman Kweisi Mfume introduced bills to posthumously award the Congressional Gold Medal to Henrietta Lacks.
The story of Henrietta Lacks has been told in the media including the popular book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” authored by Rebecca Skloot and later made into an HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey as Lacks’ daughter. Grandson Ron Lacks also authored “Henrietta Lacks, the Untold Story”.
The family explains that “It isn’t just about the money, it’s about the Henrietta Lacks’ family legacy.”