Henrietta Lacks’ story and life go on…

By Chauntel Duren

GROSSMONT COLLEGE – There is a story that will probably go on for  years.  It is about Henrietta Lacks, who is still living 60 years after her death — through her cells.  How can that be?

Henrietta Lacks was born in the 1920’s into a poor,  southern African-American family.  She was diagnosed with terminal  cancer in 1951 and was treated at Johns Hopkins University.  She did not survive the cancer.

But while she was being treated the  doctor took cells from her cervix without her consent and those cells have been used in over 60,000 studies.  Her cells are so well-known, they  even have a nickname: He-La cells.  They have been used in research  on polio, cancer, AIDS and other diseases.

For two decades, Lacks’ family was not informed of her cells’ role in medical research.  After learning the truth, some members of the family were given college scholarships, but although medical researchers  and pharmaceutical companies have profited from the use of Lacks’ cells, her family has remained relatively impoverished.

Proper compensation is only  one of many ethical issues stemming from this case.  One of the  directors in the special Henrietta Lacks study project at Grossmont College, Tate Hurvitz, an assistant professor of English, says “if they just stopped  using her cells it would stop the progress in treating these diseases so  far.  If they had to start using someone else’s cells they would  just be having to start all over again.”

Examining this and other issues arising from the case,  Grossmont College has encouraged quite a few departments including Nursing,  English, and History to study and comment upon Henrietta Lacks’  experience.  Other colleges in California and schools across the  country also are using the case of Henrietta Lacks in their studies.

As one of the directors involved in the campus program,  Hurvitz is collaborating with fellow English Department faculty members Sue Jensen, a professor, and Joan Ahrens, an assistant professor.   The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a national best-seller by  Rebecca Skloot, is being widely read on the campus.

Off-campus, “there are a lot of programs that are being  held concerning this,” Hurvitz said.  Participants across the  county include The Voice of San Diego new organization, the San Diego  Center for Ethics, and other colleges.

Various events on campus are planned this semester in  connection with the Lacks’ study, including special lectures, debates and  projects – which GC Summit.com anticipates covering on a regular basis.

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Duren is a student in Media Comm 132.  She may be contacted at chaunteld@gcsummit.com

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