Congressman Mfume Moves to Advance 'Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act' in U.S. House on Wednesday

December 8, 2020
Press Release

WASHINGTON --On Wednesday, December 9th, 2020, Congressman Kweisi Mfume will bring the immortal life of Henrietta Lacks to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. During his much-anticipated speech, the Congressman will highlight the need for adequate representation of racial minorities and underserved communities in cancer clinical trials. 

“Henrietta Lacks is a heroine of modern medicine. Her DNA has helped spur countless medical breakthroughs for years and counting. Every single one of us has in some way benefited from her life, but many of us don’t even know it. This bill honors her life and legacy by working to make sure underrepresented communities are counted and protected in clinical trials,” Congressman Mfume stated.

Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, was just 31 years old when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. While undergoing cancer treatment, doctors at the John’s Hopkins Hospital took samples of her tumor cells without her or her family’s consent. Unlike other cells extracted at the time and largely afterwards, Lacks’ cells survived and multiplied outside of the body. Her miracle cells, dubbed “HeLa cells,” were used to test and then further develop the polio vaccine and have advanced treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and other diseases.

The Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act, H.R. 1966, was originally introduced by the late Congressman Elijah Cummings in March of 2019, just months before his untimely death. In addition to advancing the work of Congressman Cummings, Congressman Mfume hopes to honor the legacy of the woman for whom the bill is named. 

According to the American Cancer Society, at least 20% of cancer clinical trials fail because of low enrollment from minorities. H.R. 1966 (i) acknowledges the substantial federal funds spent on advancing cancer research, (ii) directs the General Accounting Office to investigate the full impact of the limited cancer trials, and (iii) directs the GAO to outline policy options to make these federally-funded cancer trials more racially inclusive and therefore more effective.

Congressman Mfume says there are several reasons why racial minorities are less likely to be included in clinical trials.

“I believe the most profound reason for low enrollment begins and lies with the horrific Tuskegee study of 1972 in which hundreds of unwitting Black men suffered and died needlessly as part of an unethical and inhumane medical experiment. Historical cases of exploitation and deceptive medical practices are a major source of distrust in government research,” Congressman Mfume stated. “In other instances, patients cannot dedicate the time and resources required to participate in trials. And in some cases, doctors don’t ask. Whatever the case, we have to get a better understanding of where the barriers exist so we know how to address them.”

Representative Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland is also expected to participate in Wednesday’s floor proceedings.