January 05, 2021

Van Hollen, Mfume, Cardin Laud Signing of Henrietta Lacks Cancer Research Act

Today, U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin and Congressman Kweisi Mfume (all D-Md.) lauded the signing of the Henrietta Lacks Cancer Research Act into law to honor the extraordinary life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks and examine access to government-funded cancer clinical trials for traditionally underrepresented groups. Senators Van Hollen and Cardin initially introduced this legislation alongside the late Congressman Elijah Cummings, and it has since been sponsored by Representative Kweisi Mfume. The legislation is also cosponsored by Congressmen Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes, and David Trone.

Lacks, a Black woman, died of cervical cancer in 1951. During her cancer treatment, doctors took samples of her tumor, and from this the HeLa cell line was created – the first immortal line of human cells. Without her or her family’s knowledge, her cells were used in medical research and helped lead to some of medicine’s most important breakthroughs, including the development of the polio vaccine, along with treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease. 

“The debt of gratitude we owe Henrietta Lacks will never be fully repaid. But we can work to ensure that Americans know of her contributions to medical research and of the countless lives her cells saved, while also fighting to root out the disparities communities of color face in our health system. This bill, named in her honor, aims to do just that. Alongside my dear friend, the late Congressman Elijah Cummings, I was proud to introduce this legislation to help ensure that all Americans are represented in cancer research and ultimately receive equitable treatment options. Following the path Elijah laid – and in the memory of Henrietta Lacks – I will continue fighting to bring the health care Americans deserve to every individual and every community,” said Senator Van Hollen. 

“Henrietta Lacks’ legacy to advance cancer treatment deserves to be celebrated, and I am grateful that we are able to honor such a remarkable woman and her contribution to science with the passage of this legislation,” said Senator Cardin. “We now have the opportunity to help address historic barriers that minority and low-income communities may face when participating in federally funded clinical cancer trials. Overcoming those barriers and guaranteeing robust enrollment and representation of diverse communities is absolutely critical to the success of clinical cancer trials.”

“Whether it is cancer or COVID-19, individuals at higher risk for contracting certain diseases eventually become patients and require treatment to save their lives. The only way to ensure these treatments are safe and effective for all populations is to increase diversity in clinical trials. This new law will commemorate the life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks by working to make sure underrepresented communities are counted and protected in clinical trials. It’s been an honor to help spearhead these efforts in the name of medical science and racial inclusion. This move is also deeply personal as it’s an opportunity to pay homage to Mrs. Lacks (who lived just blocks away from my family in Baltimore County’s Turner Station) and a chance to advance the work of the late Congressman Elijah Cummings, my close friend of 42 years. Today, I hope we’ve made Mrs. Lacks, the Congressman, and our country proud,” said Congressman Kweisi Mfume.

“My family is overcome with joy tonight and applauds the signing of the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act into law. We thank Senator Van Hollen for his continued leadership in the advancement of this important legislation honoring my beloved mother,” said Lawrence Lacks, Sr., Henrietta Lacks’ eldest son. “This law builds upon her legacy and the global impact of her HeLa cells by ensuring equitable access to advancements in cancer treatment for all people. She truly is the Mother of Modern Medicine, and my family is proud that her contributions are now rightfully being honored as the world celebrates Henrietta Lacks’ centennial year.”

“While cancer impacts everyone, it does not affect everyone equally,” said Lisa Lacasse, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “The Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act is critical to changing this reality, improving cancer outcomes and reducing health disparities in this country.”

Despite the progress that Lacks’ cells helped to achieve, many communities still face glaring health disparities. For example, according to the American Cancer Society, Black Americans still face the highest death rate and lowest survival rate of any racial or ethnic group for most cancers. Clinical trials are a key component to advancing cancer research and treatment. Currently, about 20 percent of cancer clinical trials fail because of lack of patient enrollment, with racial and ethnic minorities, and older, rural, and lower-income Americans generally underrepresented in such trials. 

The Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act would direct the Government Accountability Office to study and publish a report regarding barriers to participation in federally funded cancer clinical trials by populations that have been traditionally underrepresented in such trials.