The Ethics of Medical Research: An Evening With the Lacks Family

UC Riverside African Student Programs presents free public lecture by Henrietta Lacks’ family

An Evening with the Lacks.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( – Veronica Spencer and David Lacks Jr. will visit UC Riverside for a free public lecture Thursday, Nov. 19, at HUB 302. Free parking will be provided in Lot 1. Doors open at 5 p.m. and the talk will begin at 6 p.m. There will be a book signing at the end of the lecture.

Spencer and Lacks Jr. are the great-granddaughter and grandson of Henrietta Lacks, who is known for her cells (called HeLa cells) that were taken from her body without her knowledge  and used extensively in medical research. Lacks was a poor tobacco farmer who was diagnosed with cervical cancer; she died in 1951 at the age of 31. Lacks’ cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown. The case has sparked legal and ethical debates over the rights of an individual to his or her genetic material and tissue.

The accompanying ethical issues of race and class in medical research were discussed in New York Times bestseller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” written by Rebecca Skloot. Skloot gave a free public lecture at UC Riverside last year, and “An Evening with the Lacks Family” stems from that event.

“Bringing the Henrietta Lacks story to UCR has taken more than three years,” said Ken Simons, director of African Student Programs. “Rebecca Skloot gave a brilliant lecture last November of her research about this amazing woman to whom we shall forever be indebted. Now, we have a rare opportunity for our campus and community to learn who Henrietta was from her direct descendants as they tell a different story that needs to be heard.”

Inspired by her great-grandmother’s story, Spencer is studying to become a registered nurse. She represents the Lacks family on the National Institutes of Health panel that reviews applications to conduct research using the HeLa genome. Spencer is also a mentor at Johns Hopkins for Dunbar Scholars, and is an active member of the Lacks Family Foundation.

Lacks Jr. works with computer information systems and has traveled around the United States and Canada setting up computer systems and labs for companies and educational institutions. He helped create, and still maintains, the Lacks Family Foundation website. Lacks Jr. also sits on the NIH panel with Spencer to review applications to conduct research with the HeLa genome.

The event is co-sponsored by: Asian Pacific Student Programs, Chicano Student Programs, The Women’s Resource Center, Native American Student Programs, Middle Eastern Student Center, the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center and the Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Excellence and Equity. It is supported by the Highlander Empowerment Referendum.

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Kenneth Simons

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