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VCU Massey partners with Duke to celebrate Henrietta Lacks with a community discussion on trust in research

Aug 02, 2021

HeLa event information

On October 4, 1951, Henrietta Lacks passed away from cervical cancer at the age of 31, but her contributions to science are immortal. Unlike other samples collected by researchers during the time of her cancer treatment, cells from Lacks’ biopsy survived and multiplied in a laboratory. The cell line, commonly known as HeLa from the first two letters of her first and last names, became a foundation of research in many areas, including oncology. Nearly 70 years after her death, Lacks has helped scientists make breakthroughs to enhance and save the lives of countless individuals.

To honor the Lacks legacy, VCU Massey Cancer Center and Duke Cancer Institute (DCI), in collaboration with the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research and the Duke Clinical and Translational Science Institute, are holding a virtual discussion on August 31, 2021. Celebrating Henrietta Lacks: Building Trust - The Path Forward will serve as an opportunity to engage with community members locally and nationally. It is the first in a series of events co-sponsored by Massey and DCI.

“Without Henrietta Lacks, there would be no life after a cancer diagnosis for many people, in many cases,” said Robert Winn, M.D., director and Lipman Chair in Oncology at VCU Massey Cancer Center. “Her HeLa cells are a mainstay in medical advances, and her story was an impetus for patients' rights and informed consent. Lacks, regarded during her life in the segregated South as poor and uneducated, today is revered for her immeasurable gifts. She is a reminder of a place in history with intentional divide where we wish not to return.”

The keynote speaker for Celebrating Henrietta Lacks: Building Trust - The Path Forward is Rueben Warren, D.D.S., M.P.H., Dr. P.H., M.Div. As the director of the Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care, Warren considers human rights issues in science, technology and health and their impacts on people of color. Since its founding in 1999, the Bioethics Center has aimed to address harm caused by an experiment on the effects of untreated syphilis on Black men at Tuskegee from 1932 to 1972.

Veronica Robinson, Henrietta Lacks’ great granddaughter, will be a special guest. She represents the Lacks family on a National Institutes of Health panel that reviews applications for the use of HeLa cells in research. She is also a vocal advocate for increasing access to quality health care to eliminate cancer disparities.

Warren, Robinson and invited community members will drive the dialogue on trust and trustworthiness in research.

“Increasing diverse participation in clinical research is a social justice and equity issue. Accountability, transparency and trustworthiness, coupled with equitable and integrated community engagement, must become normal and standard practice across academic and health care centers to advance health equity,” said Nadine Barrett, Ph.D., M.A., M.S., assistant professor in the Department of Community and Family Medicine at Duke School of Medicine and director of equity and community engagement and stakeholder strategy at Duke Cancer Institute and Duke Clinical Translational Science Institute.

Moderators for the event are Winn, Barrett and Vanessa Sheppard, Ph.D., associate director for community outreach, engagement and health disparities and the Theresa A. Thomas Memorial Chair in Cancer Prevention at Massey as well as chair and professor of the Department of Health Behavior and Policy at VCU School of Medicine.

Celebrating Henrietta Lacks: Building Trust - The Path Forward is scheduled for Tuesday, August 31 at 10 a.m. until 12 p.m. EST. Registration is free. Attendees are encouraged to follow the conference on social media and continue the discussion with #PathToTrust. 

Written by: Amy Lacey

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