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Forum addresses ethics of medical research

Oct. 27, 2010

KALAMAZOO--Three medical professionals and one ethicist will tackle thorny ethical issues revolving around a famous case in which cells with unusual properties were removed from a Baltimore woman without her knowledge.

Speakers will reflect on the issues of ethics, medical care and medical research illuminated in the new book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot. The public forum, titled "The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks: Medical Research Ethics Then and Now," is at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 3, in Room 204 of the Bernhard Center at Western Michigan University and is part of the WMU Center for the Study of Ethics in Society's fall season.

Forum speakers are:

  • Dr. Shirley Bach, WMU professor emeritus of philosophy and Ethics Center associate director
  • Dr. Stephen Jefferson, who practices pulmonary medicine at Borgess Medical Center
  • Neil Johnson, vice president of Patient Care Services at Bronson Methodist Hospital
  • Dr. Perry Westerman, associate professor of psychiatry and medical doctor with the Michigan State University Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies
Photo of Dr. Shirley Bach, Dr. Stephen Jefferson, Neil Johnson and Dr. Perry Westerman.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black woman and mother of five in Baltimore, who became the unwitting donor of a seemingly immortal line of cells taken from a cancerous tumor. In 1951, Lacks sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. But prior to receiving treatment, cells were removed from her tumor without her knowledge or consent.

Lacks died later that year at age 30, but her cells, unlike those of other donors, could be kept alive and grow in the laboratory. As a result, the cells could be used to conduct many experiments and represented an enormous boon to medical and biological research, a sort of Holy Grail of mid-century biological research. They became known as the HeLa cells (after Lacks' initials) and provided the building blocks for numerous breakthroughs and may have helped discover the cure for polio. Yet Lack's family continued to live in poverty and poor health and only learned of what had happened two decades later.

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Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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