Date & Time

Wed, 09/07/2011


Sixty years after an African-American woman in Baltimore died from a virulent cancer, a community gathering in San Diego learned how her still-thriving cells have opened new windows into the ethical dimensions of research on human subjects.

“The Henrietta Lacks Series” of nine consecutive “Exploring Ethics” forums began on September 7 with a presentation on “HeLa: Immortal Cells and Enduring Questions” by Laura Rivard, Adjunct Professor of Biology at the University of San Diego. Rivard set the stage for the Lacks Series with an overview of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the best-selling book by Rebecca Skloot.

Lacks died on October 4, 1951 without knowing that cells extracted from her cervical cancer tumors were an exceptional vehicle for studying human disease. The Immortal Life explores how these scientifically-labeled “HeLa” cells (for “Henrietta Lacks”) helped launch the global biotechnology industry, and the book also tells the haunting story of how Lacks’ impoverished children learned decades later of their mother’s molecular legacy.

“This book shows us that science matters,” Rivard said, “and, perhaps more importantly, that how we do science matters.”

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Laura Rivard
University of San Diego, Department of Biology

 Dr. Rivard has been teaching in the Biology Department at the University of San Diego for the past ten years. She has taught a number of different lecture and laboratory classes from introductory freshmen courses to senior seminars. Her emphasis is on genetics, and this interest has led to an exploration of ethical issues surrounding the rapidly advancing field of human genetics. Dr. Rivard helped develop and then teach an interdisciplinary course titled “Ethical Issues in Medical Genetics” for the honors program at USD. Dr. Rivard earned a B.S. in Biology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her doctoral research at the University of California, San Diego focused on genes that specify neuronal identity in the developing spinal cord. Her postdoctoral research at USD addressed the evolutionary conservation of neuronal networks controlling a specific locomotory behavior in C. elegans

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