Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

One degree of separation from Henrietta Lacks

Medical College of Wisconsin, Henrietta Lacks, research ethics

I don't have a clue how many degrees of separation I have from Kevin Bacon. But I'm only one degree removed from Ms. Henrietta Lacks of Clover, Virginia.

Lacks was an African American woman who died in 1951 and whose cells continue to play a vital role in cancer and other cell research. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells a riveting story about the human beings connected with scientific research.

And since we are all in the boat together, it shouldn't be too surprising when distant stories connect with our own.

I discovered my first 2-degree separation on page 27. Johns Hopkins cervical cancer expert Richard "Uncle Dick" TeLinde, MD, ordered the biopsy that started the cell line and the story line. He was also mentor to young medical turk Richard Mattingly, MD, who moved to Wisconsin to head up the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW-then Marquette Medical School) Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. A whole posse of Hopkins docs came along to create a powerhouse in cervical cancer treatment and detection methods (and later, infertility treatment). Mattingly hired me for one of my first editing jobs after college, working on a new edition of TeLinde and Mattingly's Operative Gynecology.

The second Wauwatosa/MCW connection showed up on page 49. Dr. Roland Pattillo is a Johns Hopkins fellowship grad who had worked with the Lacks cells (also called HeLa) and then with other reproductive tract cell lines at MCW before moving them to the Morehouse School of Medicine. I knew him slightly, but enough to claim him as my one degree of separation from Henrietta Lacks.

A black man himself, Pattillo was one of the apparently few in the medical community who understood the ethical problems associated with scientists using the cell lines for personal benefit, even if that benefit was prestige in advancing science rather than money. (Of course, there were many who made money from Lacks' cells, with no benefit to her decendants.)  He now chairs an annual HeLa Women's Health Conference on ethnicity and disease at Morehouse.

Lacks' cells are still being used. I imagine researchers from the Hopkins/MCW group and their proteges are still using them. And in my small way, I'm still trying to help tell the stories of the people behind the cell cultures, behind the data.

When you know how close we all really are, it's hard to be only objective. And that's a good thing. Without a subject, where's the story? Without the story, where's the meaning?

May Henrietta Lacks' story outlive even her "immortal" cells.

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