Editors' (re)View: Justice for Henrietta Lacks; Welcome Prof. Fauci

Aug. 4, 2023
Pharma Manufacturing editors Karen Langhauser and Andrea Corona comment on the notable happenings in the pharma industry from the week of Aug 1

Editor’s note: Welcome to Editors' (re)View, our editors’ takes on things going on in the pharma world that deserve some extra consideration.

Justice for Henrietta Lacks 

On October 4, 1951, at the age of 31, Henrietta Lacks died as a result of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. At the time, a small sample of her cancerous tissue was taken without her knowledge or consent for research purposes.

Unknowingly, Lacks had just provided scientists with the first human immortal cell line. Nicknamed 'HeLa cells', they have since become one of the most important tools in medical research, leading to numerous significant scientific advancements and breakthroughs, including the development of the polio vaccine and various cancer treatments.

For decades, Henrietta Lacks' family remained unaware of the use of her cells and received no compensation for their contributions to medical science. (They found out about it in 1973, when a scientist contacted them, asking for blood samples.) But finally, earlier this week, they reached a settlement with Thermo Fisher Scientific, asserting ownership of the cells and seeking compensation for their utilization in research and product development.

While it wasn't illegal to harvest cells without patients' consent back in 1951, lawyers argued that Thermo continued profiting unfairly from Lacks' cells long after the HeLa cell line's origins became widely known. 

The recent settlement allows the family to explore additional claims and denounces the historical exploitation of Black people, particularly Black women, in scientific experiments without their consent.

— Andrea Corona

Where in the world is Dr. Fauci?

This week, we reported that the NIH had named Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), formally replacing the retired Dr. Anthony Fauci.

This got me thinking: Where is Dr. Fauci? On a beach in Maui? We had grown so accustomed to Dr. Fauci as a household name during the pandemic (we even have a Fauci Christmas ornament in our house) that it was odd to admit that I had somewhat lost track of Tony.

I quickly discovered that I had erred in my reporting — while the 82-years-young Fauci had in fact retired from the federal government after 54 years of service, he is very much not ‘retired’ from serving the community.

In July, Fauci joined the faculty at Georgetown University, serving as Distinguished University Professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases.

I learned a lot about Dr. Fauci when researching an HIV cover story I wrote last year. It goes without saying that the start of the AIDS crisis was a terrifying time in infectious disease history. During the gap between the first published cases of severe pneumonia infecting gay men in the summer of 1981 and the first FDA-approved medication in March 1987, over 40,000 cases of AIDS were reported to the WHO, and the agency estimated that it was likely that 5-10 million people were living with HIV infections worldwide.

And it was Fauci who was heading up the government’s AIDS research efforts — and he did so by working hand-in-hand with activists. While he definitely wasn’t well-received at first, he ultimately helped usher in a patient advocacy model that arguably changed disease research and treatment forever. Fauci’s work with activists enabled thousands of very sick people to obtain experimental drugs outside of traditional clinical trials — permanently changing the way government handles clinical drug trials.

While I realize that, like most things in today’s world, Dr. Fauci has become politicized and polarized — that does not negate his contributions to infectious disease over the course of his career. And now, Georgetown students have an incredible opportunity to learn from one Professor Fauci.

— Karen Langhauser