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U.S. House Passes Bill Honoring Henrietta Lacks

A bill commemorating Henrietta Lacks, the Baltimorean whose cells changed the course of modern medicine, passed in the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday night.

The bill initially sponsored by the late Elijah E. Cummings (D) was taken up by his predecessor, Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.).

Lacks, a Black woman from the city of Baltimore, died of cervical cancer in 1951. During her treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, doctors took a sample of her cells without her knowledge or consent. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, where cervical cells collected from other patients at the time would die, Lacks’ cells doubled their numbers every 24 hours. 

Her cell sample, now known as “HeLa” cells, have been instrumental in the development of HIV and cancer treatments, the polio vaccine and the study of the effects of zero-gravity on the human body in space, among numerous other medical advancements.

According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 20% of cancer trials are unsuccessful due to the low enrollment of Black and Brown people. Should Mfume’s bill be passed, the federal General Accounting Office would be required to institute policies that would make federally funded trials more diverse and to investigate the effect of limited cancer trials. 

Johns Hopkins stated that it has never sold or profited from HeLa cells and does not own the rights to Lacks’ influential cell line. In 2013, the institution partnered with the National Institutes of Health and Lacks’ family to come to an agreement that HeLa could not be used without her family’s consent. 

It has also instituted an informed consent policy regarding the donation of cells and tissue. 

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U.S. House Passes Bill Honoring Henrietta Lacks