Wednesday, February 23, 2011

VA Assembly Honors Henrietta Lacks

From the Virginia Pilot:

Va. legislators honor woman whose cancer became a cure

After six decades of obscurity, Henrietta Lacks was honored Tuesday by the Virginia General Assembly for the revolutionary advances in medicine made possible by her harvested cancer cells.

Watching from the gallery were surviving family members, many of whom lack health insurance as biomedical companies make millions from her legacy.

A doctor from the medical school where the saga began acknowledged that the case raises difficult issues of medical ethics.

Lacks was born in 1920 and raised by her grandfather on a tobacco farm in Clover, a crossroads in Halifax County where her ancestors had toiled as slaves. She married in 1941 and moved to Baltimore.

In 1951, she died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where doctors – following the common practice of the day – had taken samples of her tumor without asking permission of Lacks or her family.

The cells, it turned out, had an incredible ability to divide and replenish themselves indefinitely, creating a line that has been used worldwide in medical research. HeLa cells, as they are known – an abbreviation of Lacks’ first and last names – contributed to the invention of the first effective polio vaccine by Jonas Salk and treatments for cancer and AIDS.

Lacks’ family didn’t learn the full story of her monumental contribution to medicine until publication last year of the widely praised book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

They listened Tuesday as Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, sponsor of a resolution commemorating Lacks in observance of Black History Month, called her story “a source of pride and celebration not just for African Americans but for all mankind.”

Among those at the presentation and a news conference was Lacks’ son David Lacks, 63, a part-time truck driver in Baltimore with no health insurance.

He and other family members have struggled to make sense of a system in which corporate medicine benefited handsomely from their ancestor’s legacy while they scraped by.

“It would be nice if we could get some compensation,” he said.

Dr. Daniel Ford, vice dean for clinical investigation at Johns Hopkins, said “it has taken too long for Johns Hopkins to recognize the contribution of Henrietta Lacks.”

But any financial payment to the family by the hospital would be a “bad precedent,” Ford said, noting that Johns Hopkins gave the cells away to other researchers. It now pays $100,000 a year to companies that produce HeLa cells for research at Hopkins.

The compensation issue is “a very complicated question,” he said. “As a society we’re all still trying to work that out.”

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