The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks

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March is Women’s History Month. Women’s History Month is a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture and society.

In honor of Women’s History Month, Missouri Western is hosting a series of events each day throughout the month to recognize women and their success. On March 7, the Center for Multicultural Education (CME) played a film on health care and racial violence. The film was called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Lacks is known as the source of cells that form the HeLa Line, which has been used extensively in medical research since the 1950s. The HeLa strain developed the polio vaccine, sparking mass interest in the cells. Scientists cloned the cells in 1955. Since then, researchers have used the cells to study disease and to test human sensitivity to new products and substances.

Dianah-Hidzir, CME Program Assistant, explained why they chose to show this movie in honor of Women’s History Month.

“In regards to Women’s History Month we decided to collaborate with the department of English and Modern Languages and the department of Sociology,” Hidzir said “We decided why not because this is a good movie and it talks about how it can fight against violence which fits into the theme this year… It can educate students on campus.”

In the 1970s, the Lacks family learned about the HeLa cells. The case gained visibility in 1988, when the BBC made an award winning documentary on Lacks and HeLa. Later, Author Rebecca Skloot wrote a popular book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in 2010. Oprah Winfrey and HBO aired a biopic in 2017.

Assistant professor of political science Melinda Kovács explained the importance of this film.

“This film really addresses how inequalities of race, gender and health care come together to create the situation like Henrietta Lacks. In the film you can see how if you are marginalized because you are black, a woman, sick or poor (which she was all of those things), there is really no recourse,” Kovács said.

The book and movie have raised questions about the legality of using genetic materials without permission and consent.

Hidzir talks about how students can learn by watching this film.

“It can benefit students in a way that they can be informed about how important the matter of consent is, regardless of the field. After showing this movie our aim was to tell people that this is actually a true thing and it is based off of true events as well,” Hidzir said.

In August 2013, an agreement between the family and the National Institutes of Health granted the family acknowledgement in scientific papers and some oversight of the Lacks genome.

Sophomore Shelbie Gainez talked about how she came into the movie knowing absolutely nothing and learning a bunch of information throughout.

“I’m so glad I came and watched the movie. I came for a credit in class and left with 100 times more knowledge than what I came in with,” Gainez said.

Since the movie, organizations that have profited from HeLa have since publicly recognized Henrietta Lacks’s contributions to research. The Lacks Family has also been honored at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Foundation for Cancer Research.