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Finishing Elijah’s work and honoring Henrietta: House passes Cummings’ bill on cancer research | COMMENTARY

Rep. Kweisi Mfume eulogized Elijah Cummings, the man he succeeded as Maryland's 7th District congressman, at Cummings's funeral in October 2019.
Rep. Kweisi Mfume eulogized Elijah Cummings, the man he succeeded as Maryland's 7th District congressman, at Cummings's funeral in October 2019. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

The emergency authorization of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is an important step in a monthslong journey to the other side of the coronavirus pandemic. But, as the Pew Research Center indicates, your level of excitement about the advance probably depends on your race.

“Black Americans have been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak, accounting for a disproportionate share of COVID-19 deaths,” Pew reported in June. “At the same time, they stand out from other racial and ethnic groups in their attitudes toward key health care questions. In particular, Black adults are more hesitant to trust medical scientists, embrace the use of experimental medical treatments and sign up for a potential vaccine to combat the illness.”

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In another survey this fall, as word spread about Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines, Pew found that the country’s general confidence in them rose, though a majority of Americans expressed reluctance to be among the first to get inoculated.

And again, views were far from uniform based on race or ethnicity.

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“Black Americans,” Pew reported this month, “continue to stand out as less inclined to get vaccinated than other racial and ethnic groups: 42% would do so, compared with 63% of Hispanic and 61% of white adults. English-speaking Asian Americans are even more likely to say they would definitely or probably get vaccinated (83%).”

The reluctance of Black people to take part in new or experimental treatments — and the reasons for that — have been well documented. There’s a long history of heinous experiments on Black people, the most infamous being the Tuskegee syphilis study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service from the 1930s into the 1960s. Some 600 Black men in Macon County, Alabama took part in a study of “the natural history of untreated syphilis,” though no one ever told them the purpose of the study. Two-thirds of the men had been diagnosed with syphilis but received no treatment for it, even after penicillin became the go-to drug for the disease in 1947. Nearly 130 men died from syphilis or related complications during the Tuskegee study.

In 2008, here in Baltimore, we had a news story blow up that revealed more of this history, and it involved the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

An experiment in extracting lead from city soil erupted in controversy when it was learned that, eight years earlier, Hopkins researchers had spread an organic fertilizer made from human and industrial waste on the lawns of nine poor, Black families in East Baltimore.

I remember being surprised at the uproar this sparked. The families had known about the experiment and had given Hopkins permission to use their lawns. The goal was to see if the fertilizer could reduce lead contamination so children could play in their yards safely, and apparently the mitigation worked.

But, while Hopkins officials explained all that publicly, the story still ignited calls for an investigation and raised historic concerns about the medical institution. This was the first time I heard the term “Johns Frankenstein” to describe the prestigious research hospital, the first time I understood that many Black Baltimoreans had grown up with “ghost stories” about secretive medical research at Hopkins, stories passed from generation to generation.

Since then, the whole world, it seems, has learned about Henrietta Lacks, the Black woman from Turners Station in Baltimore County whose cancer cells were removed by a Hopkins doctor without her knowledge or permission before her death at age 31 in 1951. The rest is big medical history, of course. The cell line from Lacks’ body led to an array of medical treatments and a multibillion-dollar biomedical industry. The cells were used to develop, among other things, the polio vaccine.

“Henrietta Lacks’ DNA has helped spur countless medical breakthroughs,” says Rep. Kweisi Mfume, Maryland’s 7th District congressman, who lived as a child in Turners Station. “Every single one of us has in some way benefited from her life, but many of us don’t even know it.”

Mfume, who was elected to Congress this year after having served there in the 1980s and 1990s, took care of some unfinished business the other day in Washington. He shepherded to approval in the House a bill that had been introduced by his predecessor and friend, the late Elijah Cummings, to honor the life of Henrietta Lacks and to do something about a serious problem — the lack of racial diversity in the clinical trials of cancer research.

Cummings, who had lived with a rare form of cancer for many years, introduced the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act seven months prior to his death at age 68 in October 2019. The bill directs the Government Accountability Office to investigate federally funded cancer trials and outline options to make them more racially inclusive. Currently, Mfume says, citing research by the American Cancer Society, one of every five clinical trials fails because of low enrollment by minorities. More diversity in trials would help medical researchers better understand how drugs affect different populations. It’s hoped that the GAO will propose ways to recruit more minorities into clinical trials.

The sordid history I cited is a major factor in this. But, Mfume adds, there are other reasons: “Patients cannot dedicate the time and resources required to participate in trials, and in some cases, doctors don’t ask. Whatever the case, we have to get a better understanding of where the barriers exist so we know how to address them.”

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