TUSDM debates medical ethics, education and research in Henrietta Lacks

This year, the TUSDM community learns that there is such a thing as immortality.

As part of the “Adapting to Diversity in Dentistry” presentation series, Dr. Robert Kasberg, Associate Dean of Admissions and Student Affairs, assigned all incoming D17 students to read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The 2010 non-fiction book by Rebecca Skloot explores the life, death and impact of a woman whose cervical cancer cells became the first immortal cell line sustained in cell culture. Dr. Kasberg extended the option to staff and faculty to also read the book and take part in staff discussions in September and October.

“We just wanted to feel out the interest in a group, and see the response,” said Rosemary Hilliard, Assistant Director of Financial Aid and one of the book groups’ organizers. “We just wanted to try something new.”

Students met in small book groups twice. For the first group meeting, they brought completed reports on the book; for the second meeting, they completed reflections on what they learned during the first meeting. The staff group meetings are scheduled for September 24 and October 10. Hilliard and Nikki Lowe, Associate Director of Financial Aid and another one of the organizers, said they hope that including the staff and faculty together will bridge the gap between the two groups.

“We wanted something that would touch everyone,” Lowe said. “There are so many themes and directions you can take the discussion in.”

Henrietta Lacks, known to most scientists as her cell line HeLa, was an impoverished African-American tobacco farmer who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Her cells were taken during her cancer treatment without her knowledge or consent; the cell line grown from those cancer cells led to huge leaps in scientific knowledge, and became part of a multi-billion dollar business. The book takes readers through Henrietta’s life from Virginia to East Baltimore, where her descendants struggle with the legacy of her cells, and explores the collision between ethics, race and medicine. Event organizers found that TUSDM students were particularly interested in the medical ethics aspects of the book.

“In the student groups people left with a lot of ideas that they hadn’t thought before,” Lowe said. “One student was from Atlanta where the Henrietta Lacks conference had taken place and had some insight into that. We’d love to have something similar happen in the faculty and staff groups.”

During the spring semester, first year students will also read “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman. The 2012 non-fiction book explores a clash between tradition and modern medicine through the story of a Hmong family with an ill child and the American doctors treating her. Lowe and Hilliard said the book is especially appropriate, considering the large Asian and Asian-American populations seen in the TUSDM clinics and TUSDM’s location in Boston’s Chinatown. Staff and faculty will be invited to read this book as well and engage in groups discussing it next spring.

“These kinds of things allow us to build upon the community we have, and foster the kind of Tufts ‘family’ that we want to build,” Hilliard said.