Friday, July 23, 2010

Convene Reads: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

You don't have to look hard to find meetings all over a book like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, a graceful and absorbing biography of both a woman and the "immortal" cell line  -- the first ever in the world -- that she unknowingly contributed to medical research, and that would play an instrumental role in the development of the polio vaccine, gene mapping, and countless other life-saving cancer treatments. The topic is medicine and medical ethics, after all, which means that much of the history of HeLa -- the cell line that was grown, and still grows today, from cells taken from the cervical cancer that killed Henrietta Lacks in 1951 -- played out in a veritable Petri dish of conferences, symposiums, panel discussions, and congressional inquiries.

All of that gets due mention throughout Skloot's book. But what's really impressive is that HeLa itself has its own annual meeting: the HeLa Cancer Control Symposium, first organized in 1996 by Roland Pattillo, MD, an obstetrics and gynecology professor at Morehouse School of Medicine who during his medical training worked with the Johns Hopkins biologist who first cultivated HeLa:
[Pattillo] was the first in his family to go to school, and when he learned about Henrietta as a postdoctoral fellow in Gey's lab, he felt immediately connected to her. He'd wanted to honor her contributions to science ever since. So on October 11, 1996, at Morehouse School of Medicine, he organized the first annual HeLa Cancer Control Symposium. He invited researchers from around the world to present scientific papers on cancer in minorities, and he petitioned the city of Atlanta to name October 11, the date of the conference, Henrietta Lacks Day. The city agreed and gave him an official proclamation from the mayor's office.
This snippet in no way does justice to this deeply researched and elegantly written book, which starkly contrasts the multibillion-dollar industry that has grown up around HeLa with the plight of Henrietta Lacks' family, many of whom live in and around Baltimore today and can't even afford health insurance.  It offers no easy answers, but gives you plenty to think about -- which is another way that it naturally intersects with meetings and conferences.

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