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Convocation Puts Henrietta Lacks into Perspective for Students

Dr. Jennifer Thomas, associate professor of biology, brought the words of First Year Seminar common book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks into perspective Nov. 28 with her convocation lecture on “The Biology Behind He-La Cells.”

All first-year students are reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot this semester. As the Belmont community explores the campus theme of “Wealth and Poverty” during this academic year, the book challenges students to consider how poverty and race intersect with science, power, wealth and faith.

Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer, as caused by the Human Papillomavirus, in 1951. Doctors removed tissue samples from Lacks for research, which became known as He-La cells. They were the basis for cellular research and led to the discovery of the polio vaccine and several other biomedical discoveries, Thomas said.

“Any vaccine that you receive and any drugs that you have taken are the result of these He-La cells,” Thomas said. However, Lacks’ tissues were taken without informed consent, and her family was never compensated for the medical revolutions they spawned.

Thomas also lectured on how the Human Papillomavirus is spread, its 100 variations, how it can lead to cervical cancer and its vaccinations. She credited Lack’s tissue as the foundation for these developments.

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