USA | WHO recognizes Henrietta Lacks as the woman who enabled advances in the vaccine against polio or HPV

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has awarded a posthumous award to Henrietta Lacks, a black American woman who died of cervical cancer on October 4, 1951 and who enabled great medical breakthroughs thanks to the immortal cell culture line.

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While he was receiving treatment, the researchers took biopsies of Lacks’ body without his knowledge or consent. Their cells became the first immortal cell line, and they have enabled untold scientific advances, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, the polio vaccine, HIV and cancer drugs, and more recently, in studies against COVID-19.

Surprisingly, the world scientific community once concealed the race of Henrietta Lacks and her true history, “a historical error that today’s recognition seeks to correct,” the WHO explains in a statement.

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“In honoring Henrietta Lacks, WHO recognizes the importance of acknowledging past scientific injustices and promoting racial equity in health and science. It is also an opportunity to recognize women, particularly women of color, who have made incredible, but often unnoticed, contributions to medical science, ”said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The award was received at the WHO Geneva office by Lawrence Lacks, the 87-year-old son of Henrietta Lacks. She is one of the last living relatives who knew her personally. Lawrence Lacks was accompanied by several grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and other relatives of Henrietta.

“We are touched to receive this historic recognition from my mother, Henrietta Lacks, who honors an extraordinary woman and the lasting impact of her HeLa cells. My mother’s previously hidden contributions are now being recognized for their global impact. My mother was a pioneer in life, giving back to her community, helping others to live better, and caring for others. In death, keep helping the world. His legacy lives on in us and we thank him for saying his name: Henrietta Lacks, “said Lawrence Lacks.


As a young mother, Henrietta Lacks and her husband were raising five children near Baltimore when she fell ill. She went to Johns Hopkins after suffering severe vaginal bleeding and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Despite treatment, his life was cut short on October 4, 1951. He was only 31 years old.

During treatment, the researchers took samples of his tumor. That HeLa cell line became a scientific breakthrough: the first immortal line of human cells to divide indefinitely in a laboratory. The cells were produced en masse, for profit, without recognizing his family. More than 50,000,000 tonnes of HeLa cells have been distributed worldwide, which have been the subject of more than 75,000 studies.

In addition to the HPV vaccine, HeLa cells made it possible to develop the polio vaccine; medications for HIV / AIDS, hemophilia, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease; advances in reproductive health, including ‘in vitro’ fertilization; research on chromosomal conditions, cancer, gene mapping, and precision medicine; and are used in response studies to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following the award presentation, the family and WHO will head to the shores of Lake Geneva to see the city’s iconic Jet d’Eau glow blue-green (the color of Cervical Cancer Awareness). uterus) in honor of the legacy of Henrietta Lacks and in appreciation of the family’s support of the global campaign to eliminate the disease. It is the first of several world monuments that will glow teal between now and November 17, marking the first anniversary of the launch of the global campaign to eliminate this tumor.

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