Wagner's annual new-student summer reading was the New York Times bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Both new and many returning students read this book and completed a writing assignment about it over the summer. Then, on October 12, Skloot came to campus to deliver the sixth annual Kaufman-Repage Lecture.
The lecture was part of the Founders Day Convocation, a Wagner tradition revived in 2008. About 250 people attended, filling a lecture hall and spilling into overflow rooms. Others on campus were able to watch as the event streamed live over the Internet.
Skloot's lecture focused on the extraordinary story revealed in her book: that of Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951 in Johns Hopkins Hospital. Doctors took a sample of her cancer cells for research purposes, and these “HeLa” cells became the first to be successfully kept alive in the lab. Still used in scientific research to this day, HeLa cells have contributed to scientific advancements as varied as the polio vaccine, treatments for cancers and viruses, and in-vitro fertilization. Ethical questions surrounding the harvesting of Lacks's cells, their use without the family's knowledge, and their employment in medical experimentation have also given rise to patient safeguards such as consent procedures and institutional review boards.
But, ethical and legal questions still swirl around ownership of body tissues used for scientific purposes, provoking debate at Wagner College, as well.
Pre-med student Melanie Valencia '12, who participated in a summer research internship in the oncology department of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, was reading Skloot's book when she was asked to work with HeLa cells.
“When I was handed the tubes, I trembled,” she recalls. “Objectivity should not be put at stake, but I believe that an understanding of where the samples are coming from is important, especially the fact that they are coming from human beings.”
Valencia believes that the ethical dilemmas raised in the book have not yet been addressed fully.
“[Tissue] samples are still being utilized and being commercialized for profit without the consent of the bearers of the cells,” she says. “I believe more emphasis should be put in the ethical education of young scientists.”
READ MORE: The first annual Rev. Frederic Sutter Founders Day Award for Service.