359426 Lacks

This minor planet is named after Henrietta Lacks (1920 - 1951), an American woman, who was a tobacco farmer and mother of five, and lived in Virginia and Maryland. She is notable for having been the source of an immortal line of cells that are able to live outside the body, known today as HeLa cells. These cells were taken from her without knowledge or consent when she went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for treatment for her cervical cancer.

This non-consensual harvesting of healthy and cancerous cells is today universally considered to have been unethical. This action was at least partially due to her race, being a black woman at a time when many hospitals would not treat black people, and also due to bad or careless medical practices at the time.

And yet, this unethical and unacceptable action has contributed to an incredible wealth of research, and saved countless lives. Her cells were mass-produced, mailed around the world, and used in the study of everything from cancer to polio to radiation response to genomics. It is an uncomfortable fact of our world that unethical actions can lead to net good results. But still, this does not cancel out the injustice that Lacks was victim to by this harvesting, however well-intentioned it was, nor does it undo the injustice that was not telling her family about the use of Lacks' cells for research for almost 25 years. Since that time, this problem has been redressed to a degree, with measures such as including some of her descendants on an ethics committee that regulates research access to her cells, and the naming of a building on the Johns Hopkins campus after Lacks [1].

With all of this in mind, it is essential to note that this minor planet is not named HeLa, after the line of cells that was her inadvertent legacy, (nor is it named after Hela, Norse goddess of the dead,) but instead after a person. In designing a symbol for this asteroid, I am obligated to represent the person and not the cell line, in order to resist a disturbing trend in American culture of reducing women, especially women of color, to just their bodies.

Yet it's interesting to see how her family members and family friends recontextualize her life in light of the HeLa cell research. Although there is certainly injustice to Lacks' story, there is also a kind of pride held by those who eulogized her [2]. Pride that one ordinary woman could have such a far-reaching legacy of healing. Her epitaph summarizes things well:

“In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touches the lives of many / Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa). Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever. Eternal Love and Admiration, From Your Family.”

The symbol of this asteroid is a capital L, standing for both Lacks, her last name by marriage, and Loretta, her first name by birth, where the vertical line of the L is replaced by a single chi-shaped double-helix strand of DNA.

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[1] https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/newsroom/news-releases/johns-hopkins-university-johns-hopkins-medicine-and-family-of-henrietta-lacks-announce-plans-to-name-a-research-building-in-honor-of-henrietta-lacks

[2] http://www.thenewsrecord.com/index.php/news/article/an_epitaph_at_last/

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