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Henrietta Lacks: 'Mother' of modern medicine honoured – BBC News

Henrietta Lacks. File photo

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has honoured an African-American woman whose cells have led to crucial medical breakthroughs.

Henrietta Lacks died, aged 31, in 1951 of cervical cancer and samples of her cells were collected by doctors without her or her family’s knowledge.

They were the first living human cells to multiply outside the human body.

They have been used in research that led to the polio vaccine, gene mapping and IVF treatment.

These and other advances have resulted in Henrietta Lacks being named the “mother” of modern medicine.

“What happened to Henrietta was wrong,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a special ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday.

“Henrietta Lacks was exploited. She is one of many women of colour whose bodies have been misused by science.

“She placed her trust in the health system so she could receive treatment. But the system took something from her without her knowledge or consent,” Dr Tedros said.

The HeLa cells – a name derived from the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ first and last names – were also used in the vaccine against cervical cancer, the very disease which killed Lacks.

Receiving the award, Lacks’ 87-year-old son Lawrence described his mother as a remarkable woman, who continued to help the world long after her death.

Lacks, a tobacco farmer from Virginia, was buried in an unmarked grave after her death in a racially segregated hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.

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