Johns Hopkins University last month unveiled an architectural sketch for a new facility it plans to build and name for Henrietta Lacks, a Black cancer patient whose cells became the first in the world to replicate outside her body — considered by many a medical miracle.
Lacks’ cells — HeLa cells — supported early vaccine development, among other scientific advancements. But the miracle was one she didn’t know about before her death in 1951 because the Hopkins doctors who treated her cervical cancer didn’t seek her consent before sampling her cells for research, as is standard practice today.
“Many of the most important advancements and discoveries in medicine have come as a result of Henrietta Lacks’ ‘immortal’ cells,” Theodore DeWeese, CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, said in a statement. “We are confident that the plans we shared today for a state-of-the-art science building honoring Mrs. Lacks will increase our opportunity to partner with our patients and the community.”
The 34,000-square-foot building under development at the corner of Ashland and Rutland avenues in East Baltimore will adjoin Deering Hall, a historic structure that houses the university’s Berman Institute of Bioethics. It will have research and classroom space as well as meeting space intended for community use.
The rendering shows a square building covered in large panels of diamond-shaped glass. According to a news release, design work will continue through the end of the year, construction will start next year and the building will be completed in 2025.
“Our team has worked to design a building that fits with the urban context but has a special identity that we hope people believe warrants carrying the name of Henrietta Lacks,” Victor Vines and Robert Thomas of Vines Architecture said in a statement. “We believe that this building will remain a critical way to share the story of Henrietta Lacks for generations to come.”
Even as Hopkins seeks to proudly honor and celebrate Lacks’ contributions to science with a building bearing her name, her estate considers the taking of Lacks’ cells by Hopkins a battery, a legal term that’s normally applied to physical attacks, and has filed a federal lawsuit seeking compensation from a biotechnology company that uses the cells to develop lucrative laboratory products.
Hopkins officials have said the institution never profited off Lacks’ cells. Instead, Hopkins doctors gave the cells away to companies that later used them to make money.
Lacks was a 31-year-old mother of five when she sought treatment for the knot she felt near the neck of her womb. She went to Johns Hopkins Hospital because it was the only major medical institution for miles that treated Black patients, albeit in segregated wards. She was living at the time near the Sparrows Point steel mill southeast of Baltimore where her husband worked.
Treatment notes described in a book about Lacks, as well as court records, detail her time as a patient.
When she first sought care, she consented to a biopsy of the nickel-sized mass a Hopkins gynecologist found on her cervix. Testing of that tissue sample led to her diagnosis with epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, stage 1, an abnormal growth from the surface of her cervix into deeper tissue.
She did not, however, permit a doctor to take two additional tissue samples while she was under anesthesia just before receiving her first cancer treatment. Cells from those undisclosed, medically unnecessary biopsies are the ones Hopkins scientists later grew into the world’s first immortal cell line.
Several of Lacks’ relatives have argued for years that the family deserves compensation from Hopkins because of what happened. Others believe Lacks’ contributions should simply be recognized through projects like the university building now under development.
Five Lacks relatives sit on the Hopkins committee advising the school as it prepares to construct the facility. One of them is Jeri Lacks Whye, one of Lacks’ granddaughters.
“The design reflects not only her strong and beautiful spirit but her important role she plays in the history, and future, of East Baltimore,” Lacks Whye said in a statement.