A panel of five medical and bioethics experts assembled Tuesday at the Library of Virginia to raise awareness of a woman responsible for massive advancements in biomedical research, but largely unknown for decades.
Henrietta Lacks — a black woman from Roanoke, Va., — was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. After a biopsy, her doctors kept and studied her cancer cells without her consent — ultimately creating the first immortalized line of cells that are still studied today. Her family was unaware of her cells’ use until 1975, never receiving any form of compensation.
The son of Henrietta Lacks and panelist David Lacks Jr. described the revelation as a “complete shock.”
“My aunt had dinner with a friend of hers, whose husband happened to be a doctor, and he recognized the last name and asked, ‘Are you related to Henrietta Lacks?’” David Lacks said. “[The family] from there tried to learn as much as they could, but the institution just blocked them.”
Lacks ultimately succumbed to her cancer in October 1951. However, due to an unnaturally high production rate, her cells were the first samples to respond to preservative treatments conducted by cell biologist George Gey. These cells — labeled the HeLa cell line — went on to directly assist medical research, spurring massive amounts of advancements in the fields of AIDS, cancer and other pressing health issues.
The newly-assembled Henrietta Lacks Commission — pushed by Gov. Ralph Northam and signed into law during the 2018 General Assembly session — is tasked with the creation of a Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center in Halifax County. The center will serve as a cancer research institute to provide customized treatments to underserved areas of rural southern Virginia, according to Senate Bill 171.
Northam also proclaimed “Henrietta Lacks Legacy Week” to take place the week of Sept. 23-29, with the panel being one of the featured events.
“Henrietta Lacks was a remarkable African-American woman, a native Virginian and a hero to us all, whose world-changing legacy has benefitted untold millions around the globe,” Northam wrote in his proclamation. “Henrietta Lacks’ loving spirit continues through her descendants, whose mission is to extend the legacy of her miraculous gift and the unparalleled reach of her cell line.”
Lacks Jr. sat among a panel of four others which included the VCU Vice President for Health Sciences and Health System CEO Dr. Marsha Rappley, associate professor of kinesiology and health sciences Ronald Evans, Virginia Union University Vice President Corey Walker and Director of the Hampton University Cancer Research Center Luisel Ricks-Santi.
An overarching theme of black mistrust circulated throughout the conversation, creating space for topics such as racial medical treatment disparities, the need for hospital ethics reform and, in Walker’s words, “the politics of life” itself.
“I want to look at how our systems — our institutions, our regimes of science — are designed to dehumanize,” Walker said. “And that design is inherent in what happened in the Henrietta Lacks case, and how we have to deal with a culture of science that instrumentalizes the human body.”