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Common book, upcoming forum to explore importance of biomedical ethics

February 06, 2018

Contact: Michael Tullier, APR, Office of Communications, Public Relations and Marketing

Book - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Featured book for Common Reading Experience

Feb. 8 update: Immediately following the public forum on Feb. 15, the hours of the Legacy Museum will be extended to allow for evening tours. 

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The name “Henrietta Lacks” may be foreign to most laypersons, but for scientists and laboratories around the world, Lacks and her “HeLa” cells are central to many foundational scientific studies. Equally significant is her impact on modern-day privacy and consent laws that protect patients’ medical care and participation in scientific research.

To bring greater awareness to Lacks’ story, Tuskegee University has adopted “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot as the campus’ common book for the Spring 2018 semester. The annual common book initiative creates a shared reading experience for students, employees, alumni and the surrounding community. It also seeks to elevate the profile of topics relating to the human condition while helping to establish lifelong habits of intellectual curiosity and engagement.

The book may be purchased in the Tuskegee University Bookstore in addition to other physical and online book retailers.

To enhance the shared common book reading experience, the family of Henrietta Lacks will visit campus on Thursday, Feb. 15 to share about her legacy on medical care and medical bioethics. A forum featuring the Lacks family will begin at 6 p.m. in the General “Chappie” James Arena. The forum is free and open to the public.

The forum also enhances the university’s month-long celebration of Black History Month, which features lectures, forums and other activities celebrating the achievements and contributions to African-Americans on the history and culture of the U.S.

Born to a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, Henrietta Lacks remains as unknown to many today as she did when, in 1951, she complained to doctors at Johns Hopkins University — the only hospital near her Virginia home that, at the time, would treat black patients — of a “knot” in her womb. Unaware she was pregnant, Lacks — a poorly educated, indigent black female without health insurance or modest finances — ended up in the hospital’s ward for impoverished people. A hemorrhage after giving birth led doctors to diagnose her with an aggressive form of the human papilloma virus (HPV). Freely experimenting on her, doctors obtained a collection of cancerous cells from her cervix without her consent or her family’s permission.

The cells from Lacks’ cancerous sample eventually became known as the HeLa “immortal” cell line, a commonly used cell line even in today’s contemporary biomedical and scientific research. Her HeLa cell line has been vital to developing the polio vaccine; uncovering the secrets of cancer, viruses and the atom bomb's effects; and leading to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping. More than 60 years after her death, Lacks’ HeLa cells continue to be reproduced, and since their initial replication, have been bought and sold in the billions.

Tuskegee University’s Carver Foundation was one of the earlier sites selected to mass produce the cell line and distribute it to laboratories worldwide for polio vaccine testing and a variety of research projects from which we all benefit today. Currently, Tuskegee continues to honor the legacy of her HeLa cells, and the impact her life has had since on medical and research bioethics, through the university’s Legacy Museum. Housed in the John A. Kenney Hall adjacent to the Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care, the Legacy Museum is part of the consortium of university- and National Parks Service-managed museums on the campus’ grounds. “The Patient, The Project, The Partnership: The Mass Production and Distribution of HeLa Cells at Tuskegee University” is one of the museum’s two permanent collections focused on bioethics issues — the other being “The United States Public Health Service Untreated Syphilis Study in the Negro Male, 1932-1972.”

© 2018, Tuskegee University