Medical Ethics and History Take Center Stage in Talk About Henrietta Lacks

UCSF’s Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo to Interview Author Rebecca Skloot at City Arts & Lectures Event

By Kate Vidinsky

Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks

Decades ago, cells from Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer, were taken without her knowledge and used for research, including being bought and sold by the billions.

This month, Lacks’ story – and the questions that it raises around medical ethics – will be the topic of conversation when Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, MD, PhD, MAS, interviews narrative science writer Rebecca Skloot, author of the best-selling book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” at City Arts & Lectures on April 26.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which has been adapted into an HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey, tells the true story of a women whose cells were taken in 1951 for medical experimentation and became a vital tool used in the development of the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization. Despite her contributions to science, Henrietta Lacks remained virtually unknown and her family struggled to afford health insurance.

“Skloot’s work highlights both how important the contributions of patients are to scientific advancement and discovery, and yet how the critically ethical issues of how patients are engaged in research have been ignored or neglected,” said Bibbins-Domingo, who is the director of UC San Francisco’s Center for Vulnerable Populations at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital (ZSFG).

Bibbins-Domingo will bring her combined research and clinical expertise to the conversation with Skloot, which will explore issues related to bioethics and health care in underserved communities.

Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo
Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, MD, PhD, MAS

“I have dedicated my career to conducting research aimed at improving the health and health care of marginalized communities, so being able to participate in this conversation is a true honor,” Bibbins-Domingo said.

In 2010, not long after “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was first published, Skloot attended a Primary Care Grand Rounds at ZSFG and read an excerpt from her book.

Bibbins-Domingo recalls attending that event and participating in a lively discussion with her colleagues about the crucial issues raised in the book, and now looks forward to hearing Skloot’s thoughts on what has transpired in the years since as a result of disseminating the story of Lacks more widely.

“This book has done so much to shine a light on these complex issues through the lens of this compelling story,” said Bibbins-Domingo. “Issues of ethical patient and community engagement are still front and center in our work, and combined with the stark inequities in our health care settings, these are conversations that need to happen in order to make true progress.”

The City Arts & Lecture event will take place at 7:30 p.m. on April 26 at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco. More information and tickets are available on the City Arts & Lecture website.

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