Black Experience

Henrietta Lacks’ Family Commemorates Her 101st Birthday

Family Seeks Equity from Pharmaceutical Companies for Nonconsensual Use of Her Cancer Cells

The family of Henrietta Lacks announced in a press release Sunday that they honored the 101st anniversary of her birth by announcing the advancement of HELA100. Their family-led initiative was established to educate future generations on the impact of her HeLa cells while promoting equity and social justice.

Lacks, a Black woman born on Aug. 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia, was a wife and young mother of five. Before her untimely death at 31 on Oct. 4, 1951, in Baltimore, Maryland, her cancer cells were taken without her or her family’s knowledge. Her cells would become known as “HeLa cells” and are responsible for some of the greatest scientific advancements of our time.

At the Lacks Family’s 101st Henrietta Lacks Birthday CELLebration, Alfred Lacks Carter, the grandson of Henrietta Lacks, said, “Her legacy lives on in us.”

“As we honor our Hennie’s 101st birthday, we remain united towards educating the next generation on the impact of her HeLa cells, advancing equity to access the breakthroughs that her HeLa cells created, and seeking justice for Henrietta Lacks,” Carter said.

Aug. 1, 2020, marked the launch of HELA100, with the yearlong Henrietta Lacks Centennial CELLebration. Since its inception, HELA100 has educated more than 20,000 students, advocates, researchers, patients, health care providers, policymakers, and leaders.

Highlights from this historic year include the recognition of Henrietta Lacks by the World Health Organization, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and Miss America. In addition, the signing of the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act into law to helps ensure all people have more equitable access to potentially lifesaving advances in cancer treatment.

“The Lacks Family is taking action towards a more just world, and we want everyone to say my grandmother’s name — Henrietta Lacks. She has done a lot for the world and needs to be recognized for what she has done,” said Alan Wilks, the grandson of Henrietta Lacks.

“Our family has done a lot to continue her legacy, and we are going to continue to do that, and we thank everyone that has helped. We are advancing HELA100 and have various initiatives to promote her legacy,” Wilks said.

“HeLa” cells — derived from the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ first and last name — are miracle cells. HeLa was the first immortal line of human cells and launched a multibillion-dollar industry.

Yet, advances made possible by Henrietta Lacks’ HeLa cells and their generated revenues were not known to her family for more than 20 years. To date, the Lacks Family has never directly received any of the revenues HeLa cells generated.

On the eve of her 101st birthday, the Lacks Family announced they are seeking justice for Henrietta Lacks.

Wilks joined his father, Lawrence Lacks Sr., Henrietta Lacks’ eldest son, his family, and their legal team led by civil rights attorney Ben Crump to compensation from the pharmaceutical companies across the country that benefited from the medical research performed with her famous cancer cells.

“There are family members that are young and impressionable. They need to know that every life matters – Black lives do matter,” Wilks said. “This has been a long time overdue.”

“At what point does a person’s property – or cells belong to them? Of course, we want her HeLa cells to do great things for everyone because she was a person of great strength and great power. Again, Say Her Name – Henrietta Lacks,” Wilks added.

“This is the greatest example of corporate theft I’ve seen in my career, and I’ve been pursuing pharmaceutical companies for 25 years,” said New York-based trial lawyer Christopher Seeger, who is representing the Lacks family. “They took something from this family and have offered them nothing, yet they’ve gone out and made millions of dollars.”

To learn more about how the Lacks Family will continue to honor Henrietta Lacks, visit hela100.org and follow the conversation @CELLebrateHeLa.

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