NASHVILLE, Tenn. In 1951, physicians harvested cancerous cells that led to unprecedented medical breakthroughs. What came to be known as the HeLa cell line, which will reproduce indefinitely under specific conditions, continues be a source of medical data to this day.
However, the patient who supplied those cells – Henrietta Lacks – was an unwitting source. She provided no consent for her cells to be cultured, and neither she nor her family was ever compensated.
On April 12, 2018, the Meharry-Vanderbilt Student Alliance (MVSA) gathered in the Cal Turner Family Center, located on the Meharry Medical College (MMC) campus, for a viewing of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The film, an HBO Original starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne, chronicles the story of Lacks’ daughter, Deborah, searching for answers about her mother and the medical breakthroughs she unwittingly spearheaded.
“It was an event to educate students about the unauthorized use of Lacks’ cancerous cells,” MVA Program Manager Pilar Prather, M.Ed explained. “The information was impactful because a lot of medical and graduate students had already learned about HeLa cells, so they were already familiar with the topic.”
The film is an adaptation of Rebecca Skloot’s critically acclaimed nonfiction book of the same name. In it, Skloot (Byrne) and Lacks’ daughter (Winfrey) uncover details about Lacks’ life, death and the unauthorized culturing of tissue samples that was almost commonplace in the 1950s.
“I think it was really eye-opening about the process of how medical professionals interact with patients, and also the unethical policies that the medical community had back then,” Prather commented, “and how important patient consent is.”
About the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance
Founded in 1999, the Alliance bridges the institutions of Meharry Medical College and Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Its mission is to enrich learning and advance clinical research in three primary areas -- community engagement, interprofessional education and research -- by developing and supporting mutually beneficial partnerships between Meharry Medical College, Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the communities they serve. Through community engagement, the Alliance serves a large community of stakeholders including surrounding universities and colleges, community organizations, faith-based outlets and community health centers. Its interprofessional education enhances students' interdisciplinary understanding and improves patient outcomes through integrated care. The research conducted provides access to experienced grant writers and materials supporting the grant application process and facilitates grant-writing workshop.