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The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks

The national best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a true story about the origins of “HeLa” cells, discovered in Baltimore in the 1950’s and heavily utilized in research ever since, including the creating of the HPV vaccine.  Mrs. Lacks was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital for cervical cancer; she died at the age of 32. The cells, taken during biopsy, were used without the knowledge of either the patient or her family. Although Mrs. Lack’s family never benefitted financially (or through improved medical care) from the use of her cells, individual scientists and medical teams were lauded for their unprecedented research and private biomedical companies garnered enormous financial profit from the research results. Although the book, on the best seller’s list for over a year, has national appeal and global implications, it is also a story about Baltimore and a Baltimore family.

The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks program held by Hadassah of Greater Baltimore on December 8, 2011 provided a human face to the research through Mrs. Lacks’ family as well as the important questions about bioethics, how we conduct research and who benefits from scientific discoveries. Picture at left are: Hadassah of Greater Baltimore VP for Health Education Robynn Segall with Henrietta Lacks’ son David “Sonny” Lacks, his wife Shirley and daughter Jeri Lacks-Whye.

Over 300 participants attended the Legacy of Henrietta Lacks program. Shown at right are: Deverah Routman; Nancy Farmer; speakers Joann Boughmann, PhD, Executive Vice President of the American Society of Human Genetics and Mimi Blitzer, PhD, Head of the Division of Human Genetics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine; Marlene Koeppel and Ruth B Hurwitz.
Dr. Boughman dedicated her presentation in memory of Hadassah’s former lobbyist, Marla Gilson. Dr. Boughman stated, “We might not have the protection of the GINA (Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act) without her [Marla] and the support of the Hadassah community."

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