Hela Cells at College Night

By on October 2, 2012

The Birmingham Museum of Art hosted its Eighth annual College Night Discussion Book Forum this past Wednesday, Sept. 19, and the night’s topic of conversation regarded the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

Since 2005, UAB has selected each year’s discussion book as a tool to help introduce incoming freshmen to difficult dialogues as well as provide insight to ethical questions, contemporary issues, and understanding of diversity.

“I really liked [the book],” says Lenora Goodman, freshman music and biology major, “so I wanted to get more knowledge about it.”

The book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," was the topic of discussion at the Eighth Annual College Night Discussion Book Forum.

The forum took place in a dimly lit, tan auditorium in heart of the museum with approximately 200 students filling most of the seats. On stage sat two experts on the book, Jonathan Miller and Bruce Koft, who delivered a basic explanation of Henrietta Lacks’s life and answered questions that students had.

Henrietta Lacks (1920 – 1951) lived the majority of her short life in Virginia and is the unwitting source of the cells which were cultured to create the immortal HeLa cell line. Her cells have been used for great scientific advancements such as polio vaccinations and research on cancer, AIDS, gene mapping and many other scientific pursuits.

After giving birth to her fifth child, Lacks began to bleed abnormally and profusely. After being referred to John Hopkins Hospital, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Due to the abnormality of her condition, the doctors performed a few tests on her body and took a sample of her tumor for further examination – without her permission.

A few months later, her condition worsened, the cancer having metastasized throughout her body, and she re-admitted herself into John Hopkins; she remained there until her death.

She is now buried in an unmarked grave in her family’s cemetery.

“There should be a lot of recognition for Henrietta Lacks,” says freshman nursing and pre-med major Elise Mayer. “I mean, [the doctors] didn’t even get her name right at first.”
A goodreads.com article on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks had this to say about Lacks’ life:

Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Because Lacks’s cells were taken from her without her consent, many people question whether or not her rights were violated.

“If I had a disease and people asked me for my cells for science, then I’d say sure,” says Goodman, “but I understand that a ‘no’ is a ‘no.’ That is their right.”

It wasn’t until 20 years after Henrietta Lacks’s death that her family even learned about her “immortality.” Her cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, but her surviving family never saw any of the profits.

UAB provided a free bus shuttle from Blazer Hall to the museum, and the museum provided an assortment of refreshments, presentations, collection tours, and activities for students following the discussion’s end.

“We even missed the bus down here, but I wasn’t gonna miss it,” says Goodman.

Russ Timothy
Staff Writer

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