Johns Hopkins University to name building for Henrietta Lacks

The Baltimore Sun

The Johns Hopkins University will name a new interdisciplinary building after Henrietta Lacks, a Baltimore woman whose cells were the basis of research for numerous modern medical breakthroughs.

Hopkins officials announced the plans during the ninth annual Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture on Saturday. The building is planned for Hopkins’ East Baltimore campus and expected to be completed in 2022, according to a university publication.

The Turner Station woman’s cells, dubbed “HeLa” cells, were significant for their ability to survive outside the body and became the basis for research that led to techniques related to vaccines, cancer treatments and in vitro fertilization. They have become the most widely used human cells that exist today in scientific research.

“[The building] will be a place that stands as an enduring and powerful testament to a woman who not only was the beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother to generations of the Lacks family, but the genesis of generations of miraculous discoveries that have changed the landscape of modern medicine and that have benefited in truth the much larger family of humanity entirely,” said Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins.

Daniel Ford, a representative for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said the university has been in talks with the Lacks family to name a building for about a year.

Naming a building after a patient research participant is unusual, Ford said.

The university has a complicated association with the HeLa cells, which were collected originally without Lacks’ permission or knowledge during a diagnostic procedure in the early 1950s. Lacks died from an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951.

Hopkins officials contend that when the cells were taken there was no established practice for informing or obtaining consent from cell or tissue donors, nor were there any regulations on the use of cells in research.

Members of the Lacks family were in attendance for the announcement Saturday.

The story became the subject of a book, titled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and spawned an HBO movie produced by Oprah Winfrey with the same title.

The National Institutes of Health came to an agreement in 2013 with some of Lacks' family that required scientists to get permission from the government agency to use her genetic blueprint.

Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea K. McDaniels contributed to this article.

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