What’s in a name

Published November 01 2018

The world owes much to Henrietta Lacks, pictured here in a posthumous portrait, whose cells were removed during a biopsy in 1951 and used for research without her knowledge or approval.COURTESY OF KADIR NELSON/SMITHSONIAN Instead of telling you some goofy personal anecdote, this month I’m giving this space over to real news. Our science writer John Arnst wrote the following short article for our blog, Wild Types, but it deserves a wider readership. We should all know and ponder the story of Henrietta Lacks — and what Johns Hopkins University has done to ensure her legacy.

— Comfort Dorn, managing editor


Johns Hopkins University has announced plans to name a research building on its East Baltimore campus in honor of Henrietta Lacks, whose “immortal cells” have been crucial to biomedical progress over six decades, including the development of anti-tumor and anti-viral treatments and the polio vaccine.

The naming was announced by Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels, who was joined by descendants of Lacks, during the ninth annual Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture in October. Lacks and the biomedical legacy of her cells, which were taken without her consent in 1951 shortly before her death from cervical cancer, were made famous by the bestselling 2010 book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

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Three years on in 2017, ASBMB writer John Arnst explained how the agreement reached between Henrietta Lacks’ family and the National Institutes of Health was benefiting genome researchers.

“This building will be a place that stands as an enduring and powerful testament to a woman who not only was the beloved mother, grandmother and 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,” Daniels said.

The announcement came about five years after Johns Hopkins worked with members of the Lacks family and the National Institutes of Health to reach an agreement on approval for researchers to gain access to the full genomic sequence of HeLa cells, including traits of the family’s genome.

Groundbreaking for the building, which will adjoin the university’s Berman Institute of Bioethics and will house programs that enhance participation of members of the community in biomedical research, is scheduled for 2020, and university officials expect construction to be completed in 2022.

“We say very directly to the Lacks family, thank you,” Daniels said. “Thank you for the generosity of spirit, of hopefulness, of honesty, of collaboration that has marked our partnership. Thank you for lending Henrietta Lacks’ name to our campus. And thank you for the things that we will do together to honor and celebrate her legacy.”

Watch video of Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels’ announcement here.

John Arnst John Arnst is ASBMB Today’s science writer. Follow him on Twitter.