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Congressmen file bill honoring Henrietta Lacks, whose ‘immortal’ HeLa cells have led to medical breakthroughs

An oil painting of Henrietta Lacks, titled “The Mother of Modern Medicine” by Kadir Nelson, is on display at HBO’s HeLa Project Exhibit for “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” on April 6, 2017 in New York City. Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for HBO.

Three Maryland lawmakers want to posthumously recognize Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cancer cells have been used for decades in research and paved the way for immense medical breakthroughs and disease treatments.

Maryland’s U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D) and Ben Cardin (D) and Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-7th) have filed legislation to award Lacks the Congressional Gold Medal for her contributions to medicine, as her endlessly dividing cancer cells have led to breakthroughs in a multitude of medical discoveries in the treatment of many cancers, blood disorders, other diseases and HIV.

Lacks lived in Baltimore and her story has become symbolic of racial inequities in the U.S. health care system and medical research.

She sought treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 at age 31. During that time, doctors at Johns Hopkins took samples of her cervical cancer cells without her consent or knowledge and discovered that her cells are able to endlessly grow and divide. Those cells are called “HeLa” cells.

She died that year, but her so-called “immortal” cells were used in medical and scientific research without her or her family’s knowledge for years after her death.

Lacks’ family said that they are honored that she could be recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Lacks’ contributions “helped save countless lives and create vaccines to improve our quality of life,” her family said in a written statement. “Henrietta Lacks is well deserving of this medal and her family takes great pride in celebrating and continuing her legacy.”

Cardin, Van Hollen and Mfume also sponsored a cancer research bill, signed in 2021, called the “Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act of 2019.” It requires the U.S. Government Accountability Office to study barriers that keep traditionally underrepresented populations from participating in federally funded cancer clinical trials.

“While these cells continue to benefit millions across the world, they were taken without the consent or knowledge of Ms. Lacks’ and her family,” Sen. Cardin said in a written statement. “The Henrietta Lacks Congressional Gold Medal Act will ensure that her contributions are recognized and honored for generations to come.”

Lacks’ cells have also been used to develop cancer research methods and understand how X-Rays affect human cells. Her cells also helped develop the polio vaccine.

In 1964, according to the National Institutes of Health, some HeLa cells were sent out to space in order to see how space travel might impact astronauts in future missions.

“Henrietta Lacks changed the course of modern medicine,” Van Hollen said in a written statement. “The cancer cells in her body helped unlock breakthrough medical treatments that are still saving lives to this day. It is long past time that we recognize her life-saving contributions to the world by awarding her Congress’ highest expression of appreciation.”

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Congressmen file bill honoring Henrietta Lacks, whose ‘immortal’ HeLa cells have led to medical breakthroughs