Bioscience school gets official name

Honors cell research pioneer

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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There’s an amazing, never-ending story behind the newly chosen name for the Health and Bioscience high school that Evergreen Public Schools will soon construct near PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center.

Exactly like its namesake: Henrietta Lacks.

The tale of the young black woman from southern Virginia, and her medical science legacy, is fascinating. Enough so to inspire a best-selling nonfiction book by author Rebecca Skloot that gobbled up several awards in 2010: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

Here’s the abbreviated version:

At age 30, the rural tobacco farmer ended up at the prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., with what would be a terminal case of cervical cancer.

During her treatment, doctors removed a piece of her tumor, without telling her, and gave it to scientists at the facility attempting to grow human tissues in culture, without success. In 1951, this unwitting “donation” was considered no big deal.

Yet, somehow, Henrietta’s cells thrived unlike any before -- providing scientists with the first known “immortal cells” ever grown for research.

They quickly became known as “HeLa cells” (pronounced Hee-lah), and were used far and wide by researchers, for years and years. They were critical to development of the effective polio vaccine; they went aboard the first U.S. space missions to find what happened to human cells in zero gravity.

They have been used for cancer research, AIDS work, study of radiation and toxics, gene mapping and countless other scientific efforts. Thousands of patients have been directly linked to the HeLa cells.

And while Lacks’ name was leaked, here and there, long ago, it wasn’t until Skloot tracked down her family and uncovered the entire story that her unknowing gift was truly revealed to the world.

On Tuesday, the Evergreen school board voted unanimously to dub the specialized school the “Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School” -- HeLa High, for short.

Offered by an ad-hoc naming committee (and initially suggested by a Portland biologist who’d seen Evergreen’s solicitation for possible names), the name beat out “Mother Joseph Health and Bioscience Academy” and “Health and Bioscience Academy of Southwest Washington” as the choice.

Even more special: Evergreen believes it is the first organization to publicly memorialize Lacks, something school board member Victoria Bradford called a special “honor” for the district on Tuesday.

Start of construction is imminent on the three-story, $16.1 million high school building near the corner of Northeast 92nd Avenue and Ninth Street.

The 69,000 square-foot building is due to open for classes in fall 2013. It will house about 500 Evergreen district students, with eventual capacity for 600 students.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515; http://twitter.com/col_schools; howard.buck@columbian.com.