Go Big Read

   The U.W.-Madison’s Go Big Read program is intended “to engage students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members in a shared, academically focused reading experience.”  Chancellor Martin wrote in an op-ed piece to the Wisconsin State Journal last September “Our long-term goal for Go Big Read is to continue to provoke questions and stimulate debate on issues of relevance. In this way, we hope to instill in our community a lifelong love of learning and a commitment to the continuous ‘sifting and winnowing’ that defines the character of this great university.”

The book selection for next year’s common-reading program is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Written by Rebecca Skloot, it is the story of a poor black woman Henrietta Lacks whose cancerous cells were taken from her for scientific research without her knowledge or consent before her death.  The resulting cell line, known as HeLa cells, has been instrumental in many medical advances such as the development of the polio vaccine, HIV/AIDS research, and most recently in the emerging field of nanotechnology.

The 1951 biopsy from which Henrietta’s cells were harvested and the resulting cell line raises many legal, medical and ethical questions.  At the time, patient consent was not required.  In 1966, it was this same cell line which a scientist was injecting into unwitting test subjects to study how cancer spread that prompted the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to open an investigation that later led to the institution of medical review boards and informed consent by patients.  Wired magazine has put together an interesting timeline about the impact of HeLa cells in an article entitled “Henrietta Everlasting” (Feb. 2010).

In a Badger Herald article appearing on April 7th, Pilar Ossorio, U.W. Associate Professor of Law and Bioethics explains “Lacks was treated at John Hopkins during what was essentially America’s apartheid: the Jim Crow era.”  She said “it is important for students to hear Lacks’ story because there are few checks in the law preventing similar things from happening to patients today.“

For more information about the Go Big Read program and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, please go to: http://www.gobigread.wisc.edu.

Submitted by Eric Taylor on April 20, 2010

This article appears in the categories: Law Library

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