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Johns Hopkins University releases designs for new building named after Henrietta Lacks

Rendering of a proposed Johns Hopkins East Baltimore building to be named for Henrietta Lacks, whose cells have been used in medical research. The new, approximately 34,000 square foot building will be located at the corner of Ashland and Rutland avenues.

Design plans were released this week for a 34,000-square-foot building near the medical campus of the Johns Hopkins University that will be named after Henrietta Lacks.

Lacks was a Black woman from Baltimore County whose “HeLa” cells were taken without her consent at Johns Hopkins in 1951.

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The schematics for the building were revealed Thursday at a meeting of the Urban Design & Architecture Advisory Panel, a city board that oversees and approves significant development projects in Baltimore.

The proposed building will stand at Ashland and Rutland avenues in East Baltimore, next to the Berman Institute of Bioethics, according to a news release from Johns Hopkins Medicine. The building will be used by several programs and include meeting space for public use, the release said.

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“It is exciting to know what the building named in honor of my grandmother, Henrietta Lacks, will look like from the outside captivating her legacy. I’m happy to see it presented to the Baltimore community,” Jeri Lacks Whye, granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks, said in a statement. “The design reflects not only her strong and beautiful spirit but her important role she plays in the history, and future, of East Baltimore.”

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Construction is scheduled to begin in 2023 and finish by 2025.

Lacks was suffering from cervical cancer and died shortly after researchers took some of the cancer cells without her consent. Those cells were used to develop the polio vaccine and were instrumental in mapping the human genome. They are considered the first “immortal” cell line, meaning they continue to reproduce in the laboratory instead of dying.

It is one of the best-known examples of medical mistreatment and experimentation in the history of health care. In 2021, the family of Lacks sued U.S. biotech giant Thermo Fisher Scientific for using those cells to make and sell products without her consent. Johns Hopkins was not named in the lawsuit, though the family has previously said they are considering more litigation against other possible defendants.

Johns Hopkins officials contend that at the time the cells were taken, there was no established practice for consent in such cases or regulation for their use. They also have said they never patented the cells and did not profit from them.

Hopkins officials have worked with some Lacks family members to develop scholarships and other programs to honor her contributions to science.

Dr. Theodore DeWeese, interim CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, said in a statement that the cells of Lacks have been key to many medical breakthroughs.

“At Johns Hopkins, we are confident that the plans we shared today for a state-of-the-art science building honoring Mrs. Lacks will increase our opportunity to partner with our patients and the community to ask important questions that will help to improve health, while also reflecting the profound impact Mrs. Lacks continues to have on medical breakthroughs, bioethics research and education,” DeWeese said.


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