Henrietta Lacks Has A New Research Building Named After Her At Johns Hopkins

Avatar
Written by Ann Brown

Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 19: Anthony D. Mays

Jamarlin talks to Google engineer Anthony D. Mays about Black cultural optimization, getting bullied in Compton for being a computer geek, and how he landed a job at Google. They discuss discrimination against folks of religious faith, and whether society has thought enough about the long-term implications of automation and artificial intelligence.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

When a young mother of five from Baltimore died at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 of an aggressive cancer, no one could have predicted the impact she would have on the medical field.

Henrietta Lacks was the source of the HeLa cell line that led to numerous advances in medicine, and it happened without her or her family’s consent or knowledge. In fact, it was a little-known story in the general public until a 2010 book was published on the subject.

Lacks visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital complaining of vaginal bleeding. Gynecologist Dr. Howard Jones discovered a large, malignant tumor on her cervix. At the time, The Johns Hopkins Hospital was one of only a few hospitals to treat poor African-Americans, according to JohnsHopkinsMedicine.org.

While Lacks was getting treatment before she died, doctors took tissue samples from her tumors without consent. These samples were then cultured into the HeLa cell line. Her family didn’t learn of this until 1975.

Lacks’ cells were unlike anything researchers had ever seen. Where other cells would die, hers doubled every 20 to 24 hours. Now they are considered immortal.

The cells helped researchers develop the polio vaccine, and aided studies of leukemia and AIDS, chemotherapy and in vitro fertilization research as well as the effects of zero gravity in space, the Washington Post reported.

Now Johns Hopkins University has announced plans to name a new research building after Lacks in honor of her contribution to science and medicine. Groundbreaking on the building is scheduled for 2020, with a 2022 completion date.

“Through her life and immortal cells, Henrietta Lacks made an immeasurable impact on science and medicine that has touched countless lives around the world,” said Johns Hopkins University President, Ronald Daniels. “This building will stand as a testament to her transformative impact on scientific discovery and the ethics that must undergird its pursuit.”

“It’s a proud day for the Lacks family,” said Jeri Lacks, Henrietta’s granddaughter. “They are all meaningful, but this is the ultimate honor, one befitting of her role in advancing modern medicine.”

This undated microscope image made available by the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research shows HeLa cells. Until these cells came along, whenever human cells were put in a lab dish, they would die immediately or reproduce only a few times. Henrietta Lacks’ cells, by contrast, grew indefinitely. They were “perpetual, everlasting, death-defying, or whatever other word you want to use to describe immortal,” says Dr. Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. (National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research via AP)

Henrietta Lacks’ contributions to science weren’t well known until the 2010 release of the book ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot. The book explored Lacks’ life story. In 2017, HBO released a movie based on the book starring Oprah Winfrey as Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, CBS News Baltimore reported.

The building announcement was made during the Johns Hopkins’ ninth annual Henrietta Lacks Memorial lecture series, the Washington Post reported. Members of the Lacks family have been working with the university for the last decade to remember Henrietta and help a future generation of medical experts.

Still, The Root points out the irony of this decision by the university.  Lacks family is still considering “creative litigation” to gain some control over Henrietta’s cells.

“The question we are dealing with is, ‘Can the cells sue for mistreatment, misappropriation, theft and for the profits earned without their consent?’” attorney Christina J. Bostick said in a Washington Post interview.

In a statement released in 2017, Johns Hopkins denied it ever profited from the cells. The university says it never patented the cells, and that in 1951, when the cells were taken, there was no established protocol for informing patients or getting consent for research of cell or tissue specimens.