Known as the “mother of modern medicine”, Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were used to develop polio vaccines is yet again receiving another well-deserved recognition.
Johns Hopkins University, together with her family at the 9th annual Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture on Saturday announced plans to name a research building in her honor with construction set to commence in 2020 and expected completion in 2022.
“Through her life and her immortal cells, Henrietta Lacks made an immeasurable impact on science and medicine that has touched countless lives around the world,” said the President of Johns Hopkins University Ronald J. Daniels.
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“This building will stand as a testament to her transformative impact on scientific discovery and the ethics that must undergird its pursuit. We at Johns Hopkins are profoundly grateful to the Lacks family for their partnership as we continue to learn from Mrs. Lacks’ life and to honor her enduring legacy.” He continued.
Some Lacks family members who were in attendance also expressed gratitude for such an honor.
“It is a proud day for the Lacks family. We have been working with Hopkins for many years now on events and projects that honor our grandmother,” said Lacks’ granddaughter, Jeri Lacks.
“They are all meaningful, but this is the ultimate honor, one befitting of her role in advancing modern medicine.” She added.
As commendable as this honor may be, it is very interesting to note that the breakthrough samples were taken from her cervix without her consent.
On January 29, 1951, Lacks felt abdominal discomfort in her womb and sought treatment at John Hopkins hospital. Suffering a hemorrhage, she was tested for the sexually transmitted infection, syphilis. The results returned negative. Her doctor, Howard W. Jones biopsied the mass on Lacks’ cervix. It was determined that she had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma.
Lacks was treated using radium tube inserts. She was charged with returning back to the hospital for X-ray follow-up treatments. Unbeknown to Lacks and without her consent, samples were taken from her cervix. The samples were given to George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher and doctor at John Hopkins. One sample was non-cancerous while the other was cancerous.
The cells extracted from Lacks’ cervix later became known as the HeLa immortal cell line; a widely used cell line. The HeLa line is commonly used in scientific research. What is also remarkable about HeLa is that the cells can be used time and time again. Even if the cells are no longer “alive,” a fresh batch can be taken from the original culture of cells.
In 1952, a vaccination for Polio was developed using the HeLa cells. In 1953, the cells were the first to be successfully cloned. In addition, the cells have been used in gene mapping and further research for various illnesses. There are currently 11,000 patents held for the HeLa cells.
In 2013, researchers revealed the DNA sequence of the genome of the HeLa cells. In the same year, individuals from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) working with a different portion of the HeLa Genome submitted it for release as well.
The descendants of Lacks were informed of the initial publishing of the HeLa cells via science writer, Rebecca Skloot. Skloot authored the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It became a bestseller and was eventually made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey.