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Federal cancer research bill named for Henrietta Lacks wins final approval

A bill inspired by the late Henrietta Lacks, a Baltimore County woman whose cells were used for medical research without her consent, is headed to President Donald Trump’s desk following a push by Maryland lawmakers.

The Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act would require the federal government to publish a report on government-funded cancer research trials, including the amount of participation by underrepresented populations and the barriers to participation.

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The U.S. Senate approved the bill Friday, and the U.S. House of Representatives had passed it earlier this month.

Henrietta Lacks, died in 1951 at 31, but millions have been helped by study of the cells that killed her. (Courtesy Dr. Howard Jones)
Henrietta Lacks, died in 1951 at 31, but millions have been helped by study of the cells that killed her. (Courtesy Dr. Howard Jones)

Lacks, who lived in Turner Station, was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital for cervical cancer, and died from the disease in 1951. Without her knowledge or consent, doctors took her cancer cells and used them for medical research.

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The resulting HeLa line of cells has proven crucial to scores of medical researchers, including moneymaking medical advancements. Lacks’ family went for decades without knowing about the research or receiving any apologies or compensation. Only in recent years has Lacks’ contribution been acknowledged and celebrated.

Lacks’ case is one of many that contribute to distrust of medical institutions, particularly among Black communities who have been victimized.

The Henrietta Lacks Act was a focus of the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who died in 2019. Cummings, who like Lacks was Black, was concerned about the lack of participation by people of color in clinical trials for cancer research.

Cummings’ successor, Rep. Kweisi Mfume, took up the cause in the House of Representatives.

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who sponsored the act in the Senate, said he thought the bill’s final passage would make Cummings proud. The bill was passed by unanimous consent in the Senate.

“For too long Henrietta Lacks’ story went untold. While our nation will never be able to adequately express its gratitude for her historic contributions to medical research and the countless lives her cells have saved, this legislation is a step in the right direction,” Van Hollen, a Democrat, said in a statement Friday.

Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, wrote on Twitter that she prays that Trump signs the bill into law.

Other Maryland members of Congress who co-sponsored the bill include: Sen. Ben Cardin, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Rep. John Sarbanes, all Democrats.

Lacks’ oldest son, Lawrence Lacks Sr., said in a statement that his mother is now finally getting her rightful due for her role as “the Mother of Modern Medicine.”

“As the world celebrates Henrietta Lacks’ 100th birthday this year, it is only fitting that this law builds upon her legacy by ensuring equitable access to advances in cancer treatment for all people,” he said.

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