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USM to host “Descendants of Henrietta Lacks” bioethics lecture Oct. 13

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (book cover)

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa.

She was a poor, black tobacco farmer whose cells — taken without her permission in 1951 — became the first immortal cells grown in a laboratory, and have since became one of the most important tools in medicine, crucial in developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and more.

Despite her cells being bought and sold by the billions, her family was never compensated.

On Friday, Oct. 13, at 10 a.m., the University of Southern Maine will host a lecture, "Descendants of Henrietta Lacks Speak Back," featuring the members of the Lacks family, as they explore their experiences with the collision between ethics, race, and the commercialization of human tissue.

Having captivated university and library audiences nationwide, the Lacks family’s talks raise complicated, yet relevant, questions: “Do we control the stuff we’re made of?” and, “Should we share in the profits?”

These issues were brought to light in the internationally-successful book and New York Times bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and the HBO movie of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey.

The event, free and open to the public, will be held in USM’s Hannaford Lecture Hall, within the Abromson Community Education Center on the Portland Campus from 10 a.m. to noon.

Speaking are Alfred Carter Jr., Henrietta Lacks’ grandson, and Veronica Robinson, her great-granddaughter.

This event is held as part of USM’s Gloria S. Duclos Convocation, a year-long series of events on the theme of “Race and Participatory Democracy.”

“This discussion is important because we have a vibrant School of Nursing that trains students not just to ‘do medicine’ but also to think critically and compassionately,” said Rebecca Nisetich, Director of Honors at USM. “Convocation is about exploring intersectional issues and better understanding the ways power structures affect disenfranchised people, like Henrietta Lacks.”

Those interested in attending the lecture can register here.

The lecture will be live-streamed on the University of Southern Maine YouTube account.

More information about the Lacks family can be found here.