The Dean’s Book Club: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

Story by Michelle Eberhart Assistant Editor

October 12th, 2017 | Extra!, In Focus, News, News and Features, Stories
 Dean of the Academic Board Brig. Gen. Cindy Jebb hosted her first session of the “Dean’s Book Club” at the West Point Club, Oct. 6. From Oct. 6 -23, participants have the opportunity to read and discuss “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

The U.S. Military Academy’s Dean of the Academic Board Brig. Gen. Cindy Jebb hosted her first session of the “Dean’s Book Club” at the West Point Club, Oct. 6.

From Oct. 6-23, participants have the opportunity to read and discuss “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

The book delves into the impact that Henrietta Lacks’ cells, known around the world as “HeLa cells,” have had in science throughout the last 60-plus years, as well as the ethical and scientific implications of human cell research.

“The history of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells raises important issues regarding science, ethics, race and class,” Skloot says in the introduction of her book. “I’ve done my best to present them clearly within the narrative of the Lacks story… There is much more to say on all the issues, but that is beyond the scope of this book, so I will leave it for the scholars and experts in the field to address.”

The Dean’s Book Club consists of three sessions—each of which highlights a different interdisciplinary topic that is discussed in the book.

The first, “Science and Ethics,” was supported by Dr. Ken Wickiser and Dr. Kevin O’Donovan of the USMA Department of Chemistry and Life Science.

To give the audience a better understanding of the science behind the book, they went into the scientific significance of HeLa cells within the last century.

“The Polio vaccine was very much dependent on the presence and understanding of HeLa cells,” Wickiser explained. “They were able to have (the HeLa cells) grow to fruition, split them off, and have them grow more and more as they feed them, keeping them clean and getting the waste products away. It was instrumental in the development of vaccines and small molecule antibiotics throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

Wickiser said that today, HeLa cells are used “all the time” in USMA’s Bartlett Hall as a means to have consistent, controlled results.

O’Donovan continued on that point, noting that Dr. George Gey, Lacks’ doctor, learned that her cancerous cells grew after extracting them, while her healthy cells died.

“The reason he was interested in taking cancerous samples from a patient and trying to grow them in a dish is to understand exactly what’s happening in cancer,” he said. “If they could get those cells to grow in a dish, then they could study them.”

From an ethical standpoint, however, questions were raised.

Lacks signed an operation permit giving consent to the staff of the hospital for her own personal treatment. However, because her cancerous cells did not die, they were used for study beyond the means of the original agreement.

After discussing the science behind the book, the book club went into the ethical concerns regarding human cell research and advancements that have been made over the years.

“It’s not a perfect system, but there is the attempt to protect the patients today in ways not available back then,” Wickiser said. “It’s simply because the more we understand, the more we’re able to interrogate those samples using different techniques.”

Class of 2019 Cadet Peter Zhu, a life science major who is currently enrolled in a cell biology course, enjoyed the connection between his studies and the book.

“When I found out it was about HeLa cells, I thought it was a really interesting intersection between the technological advancements and the ethical implications of technology advancement,” Zhu said. “I thought this was a really good interdisciplinary book that goes into greater depth with the research than I thought possible given its focus on a case study of one individual who had tremendous influence on medical science today.”

The next session of the book club will be Oct. 17 and focus on a discussion of the intersection of race, gender, social class and other factors. It will be led by Lt. Col. Remi Hajjar from USMA’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership.

The final session will be held Oct. 23, where members of Henrietta Lacks’ family will begin with a short presentation and then answer questions.