Henrietta Lacks' memory honoured by special WHO award

Even though she died 70 years ago her cells are still being used in medical reserach.

A woman whose cells have led to crucial medical breakthroughs is to be honoured in a special award ceremony by global health leaders.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it wants to recognise the “world-changing” contribution that Henrietta Lacks has made to medical science.

Mrs Lacks, a mother of five, died 70 years ago on October 4, 1951.

Her 87-year-old son Lawrence Lacks, who was just 17 when she died, will receive the award at a special award ceremony in Geneva.

The ceremony will honour Mrs Lacks and will call for “equity in health and science”, the WHO said.

Mrs Lacks, born in 1920 in the US, died from an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951 and samples of her cells were collected by doctors without her or her family’s knowledge.

It was during surgery that a sample of cells was taken from the tumour in Louisiana-born Ms Lacks’ body before she died in Baltimore, aged 31.

The cells were sent to a laboratory where they were found to be the first living human cells ever to survive and multiply outside the human body.

Research on the cells led to the polio vaccine, gene mapping and IVF treatment among other advances and resulted in her being named the “mother” of modern medicine.

Studies on the cells also led to the development of the human papillomavirus vaccine, which protects against various cancers, including cervical cancer.

The cells became known as HeLa cells, taking the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ first and last names.

A statue of Henrietta Lacks was unveiled on the 70th anniversary of her death at Royal Fort House in Bristol (PA)
A statue of Henrietta Lacks was unveiled on the 70th anniversary of her death at Royal Fort House in Bristol (PA)

HeLa cells are used in almost every major hospital and science-based university in the world.

More than 50,000,000 metric tonnes of HeLa cells have been distributed around the world, the subjects of over 75,000 studies

But it was only in 1975 that by chance the family found out about her legacy.

Earlier this month, a statue of Mrs Lacks was unveiled at the University of Bristol.

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