HeLa Cells and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — Book Discussion

August 5, 2010 at 3:16 pm

The libraries sponsored a book discussion on the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  The book discussion was developed and co-hosted by Dr. E.L. Greene, Dawn Littleton, both of Mayo Clinic, and Yuko Taniguchi of the University of Minnesota-Rochester.

HeLa Cells, as defined by the National Library of Medicine’s scope note, is “The first continuously cultured human malignant CELL LINE, derived from the cervical carcinoma of Henrietta Lacks (one of several pseudonyms).  These cells are used for VIRUS CULTIVATION and antitumor drug screening assays.”

On the evening of May 18, 2010, fifteen people met for a remarkable discussion on the ethical, scientific, biomedical, and health equity/disparities issues surrounding the true story of HeLa Cells, Henrietta Lacks and her family.  Participants came from both Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota-Rochester.  Participants’ work roles were wide-ranging and included a lawyer, a writer, a philosopher, a frozen section lab staff member, two physicians, two library staff members, a nurse, a medical student, an operations manager, and an administrator.

The highly interactive discussion started when we asked each participant to indicate how they first learned about the book.  Most of the participants had heard of the book through radio interviews with the author, or from recommendations of their colleagues.  In addition, most of those participating were aware of HeLa cells and their importance to science and medicine before reading the book.  Some had even used the cells in their research.  However, few participants realized prior to reading the book, that this cell line was named for a patient who died of the tumor from which the cells were taken.

Each participant volunteered to read a chosen passage from the book, and then explained why that passage was meaningful to them.  Several questions were directed to the frozen lab section manager who could verify the accuracy of the dilemmas voiced by the author when she discussed how tissues are disposed of and/or retained from patients and research subjects.  Everyone spoke, and everyone enjoyed the discussion which lasted an hour longer than planned.

For more information about the impact HeLa cells have had on medicine and research, see “Henrietta Everlasting” at http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/st_henrietta/.   For more information on the impact of HeLa cells on Henrietta Lacks’ extended family, read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” available in both book and CD from Mayo Clinic Libraries.  (http://library).  Author information is provided at (http://rebeccaskloot.com/).

Book suggestions for further discussion on biomedical topics can be shared with Dawn Littleton (littleton.dawn@mayo.edu).

Dawn Littleton
Public Services Supervisor
Plummer Library


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