UM Black History Month Event Recognizes the Woman Behind the Amazing HeLa Cell Line
For years, scientists tried to regenerate cells in the laboratory setting, but none ever survived. Then, in 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins University finally achieved success with a group of cervical cells that came to be known as HeLa cells.
These immortal cells never died - instead they continually replicated themselves, and at an astounding speed. Using these hardy cells in their laboratories, scientists uncovered mysteries about cancer and how to fight it; they developed the polio vaccine; they worked on scientific advances such as in-vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping; and they studied the effects of outer space and nuclear energy on human cells.
Millions of dollars were made from these scientific advancements, but the woman who made them all possible remained mostly unknown - and uncompensated.
HeLa wasn't just a random name given to these cells. HeLa was Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman from Baltimore and a mother of five who died at the age of 31 from an aggressive cervical cancer. Samples of her cells taken during a biopsy were used without her knowledge or permission by Johns Hopkins scientists (a common practice back then), who never suspected how valuable they would prove to be.
It featured Rebecca Skloot (pictured), author of the best-selling book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," which told the then-mostly-unknown story of the woman behind HeLa and the impact on Henrietta's children when they found out - 20 years later - the huge part their mother had played in the advancement of medical research. Members of the Lacks family were also in attendance.
Following Skloot's presentation, Phoebe Haddon, JD, LLM, dean of the University of Maryland School of Law, moderated a panel on the impact of HeLa cells and what is being done today to protect patients from unknowingly and/or unwillingly being used in medical research.
Panelists included Curt Civin, MD, professor of pediatrics and director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at the School of Medicine; Joe Giffels, MAS, assistant vice president for academic affairs; Christian Stohler, DMD, DrMedDent, dean of the Dental School; and Tanya Sharpe, PhD, MSW, assistant professor in the School of Social Work.
The panel discussion was followed by a moving presentation by Hayley Warren, a sophomore at The Field School in Washington, D.C., titled "Mrs. Henrietta Lacks' Legacy: Impact on Recent Research."
Claudia Baquet, MD, MPH, professor at the School of Medicine, associate dean for policy & planning and director of the Center for Health Disparities, wrapped things up with a discussion on bioethics in clinical trials, and the difficulty in getting blacks to participate because of the mistrust created by stories like that of Mrs. Lacks or of the men at the Tuskegee Institute who were allowed to suffer and die from syphilis so scientists could study the disease's development.
Baquet is planning a special session of the Mini-Med School this spring focusing specifically on biomedical ethics and clinical trials.