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U.S. House member reintroduces gold medal measure

Recognition for Henrietta Lacks’ contributions to medical research is sought with legislation reintroduced for a congressional gold medal.

Image courtesy of Wagner College.

Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives seeking a congressional gold medal to be posthumously awarded to Henrietta Lacks “in recognition of her immortal cells which have made invaluable contributions to global health, scientific research, our quality of life, and patients’ rights.”

Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., introduced H.R. 4122 on June 14. Mfume introduced the original bill as H.R. 7091 on March 15.

Medical research

Lacks’s contribution to medical research was by happenstance, through treatment she received at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951, one of the few hospitals in the country willing to attend to the medical needs of African Americans.

According to H.R. 4122, “The HeLa immortal cell line [named after Lacks] is the oldest and most used human cell line used in scientific research. Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells have been commercialized and distributed worldwide to researchers, resulting in groundbreaking advancements in modern science and technology.”

Lacks’ cells, now known as HeLa Cells, doubled every 20 to 24 hours, whereas other human cells died in the same time period. The cells continue to replicate to this day. Lacks died Oct. 4, 1951, at age 31 from an aggressive form of cervical cancer.

Henrietta Lacks is a linchpin to modern bioethics policies and informed consent laws that benefit patients nationwide by building patient trust and protecting research participants. Her cells were harvested without her knowledge in 1951 at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

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