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Biology students at H-F learn the lessons of Henrietta Lacks

African-American Henrietta Lacks isn’t a household name, but Homewood-Flossmoor High School teacher Jeanettra Watkins believes it should be.

African-American Henrietta Lacks isn’t a household name, but Homewood-Flossmoor High School teacher Jeanettra Watkins believes it should be.

  High School student
  Anna Wooten watches
  as Sam Calhoon spins the
  wheel to learn his prize
  after correctly answering
  questions about Henrietta
(Provided photo)

As part of the school’s Black History Month celebration, Watkins and H-F students spread the word on the incredible benefits people around the world have gotten thanks to Lacks.

Her cells, unwittingly donated to science in 1951, have since been used in developing a treatment for polio, research into cancer and AIDS and genetic mapping.

When Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, a doctor biopsied cells from her tumor. Under a microscope he found cells of unusual shapes and colors. He created the cell line HeLa that is now an immortalized cell line that proliferates and is used in medical research around the world.

At the time, a patient’s consent to share or culture cells was not the norm and Lacks and her surviving relatives were never compensated for the use of her cells.

In 1975, when the family learned about the HeLa cells used in medical research and commercial use, it raised serious concerns within the medical community about patient rights and privacy.

“There are a lot of students who aren’t even aware of who she is,” said Watkins who organized a Henrietta Lacks Day on Monday, Feb. 12.

Lacks loved her red nail polish, so Watkins had the H-F Ribbons on the Move group make 700 red ribbons and distributed them to teachers, administrators and the freshmen biology classes before they watched the movie

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” starring Oprah Winfrey. It is based on Rebecca Skloot’s book on how she informed the Lacks children of their mother’s place in the world of medical science.

Watkins had the cafeteria staff decorate cookies with red frosting, and the Science Olympiad students volunteered their lunch breaks to share information about Lacks with the H-F student body through trivia games and information cards.

Freshmen Serena Determan of Flossmoor and Lorraine Martin of Chicago Heights said they knew nothing of Henrietta Lacks before their teacher started talking about her importance in the world of science.

“Without her we wouldn’t have a lot of the vaccines we have, the research that we have for cells on cancer and how they react to things like radiation and being frozen,” Serena said.

Students knowing the history of HeLa cells could spark an interest into a career in cancer research, she said. Lorraine said learning about the replicating of cell chromosomes, called cell mitosis, and how that relates to Henrietta Lacks was new knowledge for her. She appreciated that her teacher gave classes information through a format other than worksheets.

Watkins calls biology the study of life and she wants to make it “as real as possible beyond the textbook. We could easily do a worksheet or read a book about cancer or look at different cell divisions,” she said, but her goal is “to make it become real for them and relevant and provide a little more rigor.”


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