By Haywood L. Brown, MD
ACOG Past President
In the month of January, we acknowledge cervical cancer awareness. So, as we celebrate Black History Month in February, how appropriate that we acknowledge the contributions of Henrietta Lacks to science.
Sometime around the birth of her fifth child at age 31, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer, which would take her life that same year. George Otto Gey was the first researcher to study Lacks’ cancerous cells and noted how unusual the cells were in reproducing at a very high rate and maintaining longevity. Her cells were the first human cells to be cloned in 1955. The rapidly reproducing “immortal” HeLa cells have been used in more than 74,000 studies and have led to breakthrough biomedical research around the world, including the development of the polio vaccine by Jonas Salk in 1954—and more recently the HPV vaccines; treatments for diseases such as diabetes and AIDS; and other lifesaving research, including the effects of radiation and toxic substances.
The contributions Lacks made to medical science have been heralded in the best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and in an HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey. In 1996, Morehouse School of Medicine held its first annual HeLa Women’s Health Conference. In 2010, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Clinical and Translational Research established the annual Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture Series to honor the global impact of the HeLa cells on medical science, and the National Institutes of Health established a working group in her honor. In 2013, the NIH stated that Lacks and her family were the “greatest philanthropists of our time.” However, it wasn’t until 1987—36 years after her cells were first replicated and shared widely amongst the research community—that the NIH would institute a policy encouraging the inclusion of minorities in clinical studies, and it would be six years more before Congress would make that inclusion law through a section in the NIH Revitalization Act of 1993 titled Women and Minorities as Subjects in Clinical Research. It is also important to acknowledge that the story of Henrietta Lacks is not just about medical breakthroughs; because her “immortal cells” were taken without her consent, hers is another story about the unconsented and underacknowledged ways in which Black women have contributed to the field of gynecology.
It should be considered one of the greatest conundrums of our time that, without knowing it, a Black woman is responsible for thousands of breakthroughs in biomedical research. In 2018, Johns Hopkins University announced plans to name a research building in her honor. In 2020, Lacks was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and in 2021 the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act of 2019 becomes law.
While there have been significance advances in cervical cancer diagnosis, treatment, and prevention over the last seven decades, it is important to note that there is still a significant racial disparity in rates of diagnosis and death: Black women are two times more likely to die from invasive cervical cancer. While death from cervical cancer has been rarer in the United States, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer-related death in women in eastern, western, middle, and southern Africa and other parts of the world.
HPV vaccines are some of the most effective vaccines worldwide, with efficacy of over 90% in certain populations. HPV is a chief cause of cervical cancer; it’s fitting that Lacks’ cells played a key role in developing a vaccine that could eradicate one of cervical cancer’s main causes.
Because Henrietta Lacks died of invasive cancer and hemorrhage within a few months after giving birth – at the age of 31 – by today’s definition, her death would be considered a case of maternal mortality. This speaks to some degree to the inequity and quality of care she received during pregnancy as the invasive cancer was likely visible and diagnosable. Remarkably, if the hemorrhage had occurred during delivery, her death might have been deemed pregnancy related, and the “immortal” Hela cells may never have come to be – and may never have saved countless additional lives.