Family of the Immortal Henrietta Lacks
October 14, 2013
What does it mean to be immortal? Veronica Spencer and Shirley Lacks explore the collision between ethics and medicine during the Indiana State University Speaker Series on Oct. 14, 2013, at 7 p.m. in Tilson Auditorium. Spencer and Lacks will discuss their family matriarch, Henrietta Lacks, whose life and scientific impact was widely introduced to the world in Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Henrietta’s cells, called HeLa cells, are the oldest and most commonly used human cells in scientific research. Known as immortal cells, they can undergo cell division indefinitely, making them “immortal.” Although taken without Henrietta’s knowledge shortly before she succumbed to cancer, HeLa cells became vital to developing the polio vaccine, studying cancer, analyzing the atom bomb’s affects, as well as advancing in vitro fertilization and gene mapping.
The Lacks Family will not only enlighten audiences about the woman behind the cells, but also discuss ethical issues surrounding the muddled history of human experimentation and informed consent. Henrietta’s cells were taken more than 60 years ago, during a time when experimentation on African Americans was not closely monitored and informed consent was a luxury, not a right. In the 1970s, scientists performed tests on her children, without their consent or a basic understanding of the process.
Spencer and Lacks will take a deeper look at the blurry lines of ethics and human experimentation and the commercialization of human tissue, while also celebrating the life of the woman behind one of the most talked-about marvels of modern medicine. This event is free and open to the public.
Veronica Spencer is Henrietta Lacks’ great granddaughter. Inspired by Henrietta’s story, she is currently studying to become a Registered Nurse at Baltimore City Community College. She represents the Lacks family on the National Institute of the Science’s panel that reviews applications to conduct research using the HeLa genome. Veronica is also a mentor at Johns Hopkins for Dunbar Scholars and a very active member of the Lacks Family Foundation.
Shirley Lacks is Henrietta Lacks’ daughter-in-law and was Deborah’s best-friend in high school. Since retiring from the banking industry, Shirley dedicates a lot of her time traveling around the country, keeping Henrietta’s legacy alive. Shirley has three children and 5 grandchildren.