What Does the New Hopkins Medical Building Signify?

On Saturday, October 6th at the Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture, President Daniels of the Johns Hopkins University declared that Hopkins would be constructing a new building on their medical campus in East Baltimore. They will be naming it after Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose immortal cells (better known as “HeLa cells”) have transformed the medical field in the past seven decades. This announcement means that the University is at last giving  Mrs. Lacks acknowledgement synonymous with the legacy of her cells; yet many people, especially those at Hopkins, know very little about Mrs. Lacks and how the HeLa cells were discovered.

Who was Henrietta Lacks?

Henrietta Lacks was a black woman living in Baltimore with her five children and husband during the early 20th century. At 31 she developed a very aggressive strain of cervical cancer, which she was treated for at the Johns Hopkins hospital in 1951. She died a few months after her initial diagnosis.

What are HeLa cells?

During her cancer treatment, a doctor took samples of the cancerous tumor. When these cells were cultured in a lab (specifically the lab of Dr. George Gey), they were found to have an unnaturally long life span and reproduce continuously. Soon after their discovery, these cancer cells were used by scientists to develop treatments for countless diseases; most notably, Jonas Salk used HeLa cells to develop the polio vaccine, but the cells have also been used for cancer and AIDS research as well as gene mapping. It is estimated that scientists have produced over 50 tons worth of HeLa cells since their discovery.

Why should I care?

The scientific community used these cells without the permission of either Mrs. Lacks or her family. They didn’t receive any monetary compensation. In fact, for nearly two decades the Lacks family had no idea that Henrietta’s cells were being reproduced and studied around the world (they only found out once medical institutions contacted them to study the genetics of the entire Lacks family). In recent years, the Lacks family has spoken out about patient rights regarding the use of their cells, and, as a result, generated a conversation about bioethics.

A discussion of bioethics, especially when talking about Mrs. Lacks, is also a discussion of race. At the time she was treated Hopkins was one of the only top hospitals that served black patients, but it was segregated. In Rebecca Skloot’s biography on Mrs. Lacks, called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, she suggests that because of Mrs. Lacks’ race, regard for her personal privacy and rights were more likely to be overlooked by Hopkins doctors.

Even though dedicating a Hopkins building to Mrs. Lacks is a step in the right direction, there is still a considerable amount of progress yet to be made in improving bioethical standards in the medical community. Health care, abortion rights, and the use of toxic pesticides are just some of the issues demanding attention from scientists and politicians alike.