Book read looks at ethical questions of immortal cell line

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KALAMAZOO--A reception and panel discussion will kick off "book read" activities this month at the Western Michigan University centering on the award-winning book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot.

The reception is at 12:15 p.m. Friday, March 16, in the atrium of the Health and Human Services Building. The panel discussion will follow at 1 p.m. in Room 1010. The events are free and open to the public.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" has garnered much attention from ethicists and the public at large and was selected for the fifth annual College of Health and Human Services Book Read. It chronicles the famous case of Henrietta Lacks, who was known to scientists as HeLa, and cells with unusual properties removed from her cancerous tumor without her knowledge.

In 1951, Lacks, a poor black woman and mother of five, sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. During radiation treatment, two samples of her cervix--one cancerous and one healthy--were removed without her permission. These cells became known as the HeLa immortal cell line and became an important tool in biomedical research.

Lacks died a short time later, but her cells, unlike those of other donors, could be kept alive and grown in the laboratory. As a result, they could be used to conduct numerous experiments and were vital in developing the polio vaccine and research into cloning, gene mapping and more. Her cells were an enormous boon to scientific discovery, a sort of Holy Grail to mid-century medical and biological research.

Though Lacks' cells provided the building blocks for numerous breakthroughs, her family continued to live in poverty and poor health, only learning of what had happened some two decades later. Her cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet until now she has remained virtually unknown, and her family can't afford health insurance.

Skloot began researching the book as a graduate student in 1999 after learning about HeLa and the first human immortal cells cultured in a lab in her college biology class. In setting out to find the person behind these amazing cells, she found questions about the complexity of ethics and scientific progress, along with a very human story about a "real live woman" and the children who survived her.

Panel members will discuss Lacks' contribution to scientific progress and the ethical and social implications of her story. Dr. Jil Larson, WMU associate professor of English, will moderate the discussion. Serving on the panel are Dr. Linwood Cousins, director of the School of Social Work, who will talk about the anthropological and social issues the book presents; Dr. Charles Ide, the Gwen Frostic Professor of Biological Sciences and director of the Great Lakes Environmental and Molecular Sciences Center, who will discuss the impact of the HeLa cells on medical and biological sciences research; and Dr. Mary Lagerwey, professor of nursing, who will reflect on the many ethical issues raised by the book.

The annual book read is sponsored by the College of Health and Human Services Curriculum Committee as a catalyst for examining health care locally and globally. It provides an opportunity for faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members to use a common reading experience to foster discussion of key issues that impact health and human services.

Visit wmich.edu/hhs/book-read or contact Dr. Richard Long, college associate dean, at richard.long@wmich.edu or (269) 387-2540 for more information and additional events.