Her cells led to the development of the Salk Vaccine that cured polio and supported research into leukemia and AIDS
By Frederick H. Lowe
A new building scheduled for groundbreaking in 2020 at Johns Hopkins University’s East Baltimore campus will be named in honor of the late Henrietta Lacks, who unknowingly was the source the “HeLa” cell, an immortalized cell line that led to the development and testing of the Salk Vaccine that cured polio and other medical breakthroughs. Her cells were cultivated and used extensively without her or her family’s knowledge or consent and without their being remunerated until many decades after her death.
The honor for Henrietta Lacks, born Loretta Pleasant, comes 62 years after Johns Hopkins researcher George Otto Gey used cells from Lacks’ body for research without her knowledge or consent.
He discovered what was later called the “HeLa” cell, an immortalized cell line that would reproduce indefinitely under specific conditions. Her cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours unlike other cells that died off readily. The HeLa cell line continues to this day to provide an invaluable source of medical data for researchers.
Besides the polio vaccine, HeLa cells led to the study of leukemia, AIDS and the effects of zero gravity in outer space.
Her cells were eventually sold worldwide, but her family, which was very poor, never benefitted. No one of them could even afford health insurance.
Lacks died October 4, 1951, of cervical cancer, according to her death certificate. She was 31 and left her five children motherless. Three of her children are living. It is not known where she was buried.
Johns Hopkins also had a reputation of kidnapping black men and women from the street and subjecting them to medical experimentation.
The crucial role Lacks’ cells played in medicine was written about in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (2010) by author Rebecca Skloot. The critically acclaimed book was later adapted into an HBO film of the same title, starring Oprah Winfrey, who was also one of the production’s producers, and Rose Byrne.
An article published in Johns Hopkins Magazine in the summer of 2010 discussed the unauthorized use of Lacks’ cells.
The new research building will adjoin the Berman Institute of Bioethics’ Deering Hall.
The National Institutes of Health signed an agreement with Lacks’ family control the Lacks’ genetic blueprint.
The building is scheduled for completion in 2022.