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Published in Centerview on January 16, 2012
Medical students Jonah Gunalda, front, Ocheowelle Okeke, left, and Anna Allred
Medical students Jonah Gunalda, front, Ocheowelle Okeke, left, and Anna Allred

Common Reading Project delves into the incredible sustainability of Henrietta Lacks

A thought-provoking book, which spans the modern history of biomedical ethics, research and patient care, is being read by people across campus and is the focus of a panel
 discussion planned for noon, Friday, Jan. 20.

UMMC’s Common Reading Project centers on the bestseller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a nonfiction book that chronicles the life of a poor, African-American woman who died of cancer in 1951. Her cells – taken without her knowledge at Johns Hopkins University – became the first human cells in culture to sustainably reproduce.

Those cells, known as HeLa, were shared among scientists, grew, reproduced and eventually were commercialized and purchased by the billions.

Researchers used them in work that shaped the modern world – developing the polio vaccine, gene mapping, cloning and in-vitro fertilization, uncovering secrets of cancer and viruses, probing the effects of an atom bomb and thousands of other experiments.

Members of the Medical Center community, particularly those who have read the book, are invited. The discussion will be in classroom R153 (lower amphitheatre). Lunch will be provided on a first-come basis.

Throughout the story, the book’s author, Rebecca Skloot, encounters social, cultural, racial and educational issues that, while taking place in Baltimore, are familiar to Mississippi. The book also touches on legal landscape changes throughout the past 50 years and national policies that promoted research.

“It’s a fascinating story that has lots of application on our campus,” said Dr. Jerry Clark, chief student affairs officer.

Clark’s office gave the book to the School of Medicine class of 2015, and the interest grew from there. The Common Reading Project and panel discussion are jointly sponsored by Student Affairs, Academic Affairs and Multicultural Affairs.

Dr. Jasmine Taylor, associate vice chancellor for multicultural affairs, said in addition to the M1 class, all incoming students in the School of Graduate Studies read it, too. In the Common Reading Project, people across campus are invited to join in.

“We saw an opportunity for interdisciplinary discussion. It’s the first structured Common Reading Project, the first time we’ve had a common discussion, an exchange of ideas and an opportunity for faculty, staff, and students to reflect on many topics beyond the classroom which impact patient care.”

Second-year medical student Jonah Gunalda chairs the M2 Ethics Committee. He took a group of his committee members to the University of Mississippi in Oxford to hear the author speak at the Freshman Convocation in August. He said the talk and his own experience reading the book will help make him a more conscientious physician.

“The thing I’ll remember is the importance of communicating clearly with patients,” Gunalda said. “You want to fully explain why you want to do a test, what you’re going to do, what will happen afterward.”

Ocheowelle Okeke, also an M2, said she was glad to attend Skloot’s talk and had heard buzz of the book before going.

“I’d heard the book mentioned before. For me it really laid the groundwork for medical ethics today,” she said.

From a small incubator in his UMMC lab, Dr. Michael Hebert pulls a clear plastic flask-shaped bottle with an orange cap. In one corner, in permanent marker, “HeLa” is written. Laying the flask on its side on a microscope platform, all the naked eye sees is a millimeter of fluid, the slight shade of pink washing over the surface.

Magnified, hundreds of cells come into view. Cells dividing, Cells crowding up on each other. Cells dying.

They’re flat and display well. Their nuclei are large and the distinct parts of them can be seen clearly. That’s why Hebert, professor of biochemistry, uses the cells in his work.

Specifically, his lab analyzes the way Cajal bodies – certain domains in the nucleus – form and help produce the molecular scissors that process RNA. In cancer cells, Cajal bodies are particularly important for rapid cell division.

He’s worked with HeLa cells for 18 years and has always told visitors to his lab that Henrietta Lacks was a woman who had cervical cancer and the cells were taken from her.

“It’s a sad story and, given how much the cells are used in science, few people knew it,”
he said.

Taylor said the discussion Jan. 20 will be an opportunity to enhance readers’ enjoyment of the book through shared experience. It will offer meaningful conversation that crosses backgrounds and disciplines.

“Henrietta Lacks was an invisible person, in many ways, to science,” Taylor said. “But it’s uncountable the ways we’ve all benefitted from the discoveries made with her cells.

“I think it’s appropriate to have a moment of silent appreciation for this woman who contributed so much to science. It’s fitting that we honor her by continuing the discussion. It’s appropriate that we express gratitude to her contribution by helping future health-care workers understand and appreciate her importance.”

Taylor said lessons learned from the book should carry into the lives of UMMC community members in the way they interact with patients, work in teams and focus on health-care delivery.

The expert panel who will lead the discussion include moderator Dr. Rick Boyte, professor of pediatrics; Dr. Bill Cleland, professor of ob-gyn; Dr. Ralph Didlake, director of the UMMC Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities; Nancy Olson, Institutional Review Board director; Dr. Ian Paul, professor of psychiatry; and Dr. Herman Taylor, professor of cardiology and principal investigator of the Jackson Heart Study.