Johns Hopkins University announced Saturday it will honor late Clover native Henrietta Lacks by naming a new building on its medical campus in East Baltimore after the African-American woman whose cancer cells continue to have an impact on medicine more than 60 years after they were taken without her consent.
Participating in the announcement were Lacks’ descendants who said the new research building will honor her impact on science and medicine.
Located next to the Berman Institute of Biotechs’ Deering Hall, the new building will support mutually beneficial research programs and opportunities.
Groundbreaking on the building is slated for 2020, and it is anticipated to have a 2022 completion date.
Lacks Commission plans cancer research treatment center here
The announcement in Maryland came just days after the Henrietta Lacks Commission travelled to Halifax County where they met at the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority building and at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center.
Governor Ralph Northam signed into law earlier this year the creation of the commission, a board tasked with developing and implementing a plan to construct a biomedical cancer research and treatment center in Halifax County named in honor of Lacks, the African-American woman and native Virginian whose cells became the first immortal human cell line.
Often referred to as the matriarch of modern medicine, Lacks’ life and legacy are now the cornerstone of a currently conceived $50 million, 200,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art medical research and treatment facility bearing her name to be built near her Clover home and final resting place.
Virginia legislators have described Lacks as “a Virginia hero, an African-American woman whose unique world-changing legacy has touched all of us, without most of us realizing it.”
Henrietta Lacks’ life story
Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on Aug. 1, 1920, but she quickly and affectionately came to be called Hennie by her family.
After her mother’s death, she was raised by extended family members in the Clover community where she lived in a former slave cabin known to the Lacks family as the home-house, most of which still stands today, just yards away from Lacks’ final resting place.
Lacks was baptized in St. Matthews Church in the town of Clover and educated in the same town.
As a child, she worked the exhausting life of a tobacco farmer’s daughter alongside her cousins.
She later married and began her family in Clover.
In 1941, Henrietta moved with her husband, David “Dye” Lacks, and their first two children, Lawrence and Elsie, to Turner Station, near Baltimore, Maryland.
There her husband found work in the steel mills, and Lacks continued raising her growing family, which soon included another daughter, Deborah, and two more sons, David, known as “Sonny,” and Joseph, now known as Zakariyya.
An unsung hero for too long, Lacks’ story is one of triumph and healing, but her heroism started with tragedy and suffering.
In 1951, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and treated at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. There, just before her untimely death at the young age of 31, and unbeknownst to her, some of her cells were removed from her body for use in research.
Also unbeknownst to the rest of the world at the time was her miraculous gift in the form of human cells that did not die.
Lack’s cells, shortened in name to HeLa cells, and so disconnecting her full name from their power and promise for over half a century, became the first immortal cell line.
This immortality allowed Henrietta’s cells to be replicated and distributed to researchers around the world who could then test their theories and validate their results on an identical base line of living cells, suddenly advancing biotech research by leaps and bounds.
Over the decades, the HeLa cell would be named in over 11,000 patents, including just three years after Lacks’ death, when her cells were used to develop the polio vaccine.
HeLa cells have been used to research and develop new therapies to fight cancer and AIDS, and in the effort to map the human genome, that holds the key to “personalized medicine” which could treat or even cure everyone of almost every ailment and disease over time.
“At a time when too much divides us, it is a wonder beyond all worldly making that what unites us is the healing legacy of one of our own, gone from this world in body, but not in spirit. Henrietta Lacks is a true Virginia hero; a true woman hero; a true African-American hero, who we celebrate,” said Del. James Edmunds earlier this year when he asked legislators to recognize the “unique and powerful legacy” of Lacks “and her heroism which extends far beyond these chambers and the Commonwealth of Virginia for the continued benefit of all people, in all of the world.”
Lacks’ descendants said they knew from the outset that this science research center project aligned with their family’s efforts.
“Our mission is to extend our grandmother’s legacy in responsible and powerful ways,” said commission member Jeri Lacks-Whye. “Building the center in her home county, an area of southern Virginia where access to specialized care and research is rare, means a great deal to us. Helping end suffering and provide hope in the battle against cancer and all disease is her true legacy.”
Late last month commission members met in the county to discuss their visions, mission and goals, work flow and timetable, related expenses, the technical advisory panel, committee structure, by-laws and attorney general office oversight, website preview and procedures, access to gravesite, sustainability and their meeting schedule.
The governor proclaimed Sept. 23-29 as Henrietta Lacks Legacy Week in Virginia.
Rebecca Skloot’s book, ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’
Not many people knew anything about Lacks or her cells until these contributions to science were brought to light with the 2010 release of Rebecca Skloot’s book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” that explored her life story.
Ten years in the making, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a non-fiction work won the second Wellcome Trust Book Prize.
Taking readers on a journey of scientific discovery, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” tells the story of the poor Southern tobacco farmer’s daughter whose cancer cells, taken without her knowledge, became one of the most important tools in medicine.
This debut work by the then 37-year-old author took a decade to chronicle and weaves together the Lacks family story from the first culturing of HeLa cells to the dark history of experimentation on African-Americans and the birth of bio-ethics.
HBO releases movie based on book starring Opray Winfrey, Rose Byrne
Seven years after the book was published, on April 22, 2017 HBO released a movie starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne in an adaptation of Skloot’s critically acclaimed, bestselling nonfiction book of the same name.
The film tells Lack’s story and how her cells were used to create the first immortal human cell line following her death from cervical cancer in 1951.
Lacks, the county native well-known in the world of science, was laid to rest in Clover.
Told through the eyes of her daughter, Deborah Lacks (Winfrey), the film chronicles her search, with the help of journalist Rebecca Skloot (Byrne), to learn about the mother she never knew and to understand how the unauthorized harvesting of Lacks’ cancerous cells in 1951 led to unprecedented medical breakthroughs, changing countless lives and the face of medicine forever.
The gravesite of Henrietta Lacks is in Clover, where a headstone donated in 2010, reads, “Henrietta Lacks, August 01, 1920-October 04, 1951 -- In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touched the lives of many.