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Bioethics at the Forefront of UW-Madison's Go Big Read Program

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Author Visit

A public presentation with Rebecca Skloot will be held at 7pm October 25 at the Kohl Center. Admission is free, and no tickets are required.

Ebling Library Exhibit

"Informing Consent: Unwitting Subjects in Medicine's Pursuit of Beneficial Knowledge"

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Last year's freshman year of Go Big Read, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's common-reading program, was a success, as the campus and community read, discussed and, yes, disagreed about the selected book, "In Defense of Food" by Michael Pollan.


The purpose of the program is to engage students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members in a shared, academically focused reading experience.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot has been selected as the book for Go Big Read's sophomore year. The book was chosen from a short list compiled by a review committee from nearly 160 titles nominated.


"In addition to being a great read, 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' is cross-disciplinary and relevant, and will engage students and readers on a number of intellectual and personal levels," says Martin.


Ken Frazier, director of UW-Madison Libraries and a member of the Go Big Read steering committee, also praised the choice.


"The book illuminates complex science by telling a compelling human story that is rich in moral issues, but author Rebecca Skloot wisely leaves it to the reader to sort out the ethical implications," says Frazier. "It will inspire thought, conversation and, I hope, some controversy."


Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman in Baltimore who died in 1951 at age 30 from cervical cancer. Before her death, a sample of her cancerous tissue was taken without her knowledge or consent, standard procedure at the time. Skloot tells the story of what happened to her cells and the influence they had on medicine and her family.


Those cells could reproduce indefinitely without disintegration - a medical and scientific breakthrough. This development made research and key medical advances possible, including vaccines for polio and the human papillomavirus, treatments for leukemia and other drug developments, and uncovering information about cancer.


Named HeLa, for HEnrietta LAcks, the cells have been made, bought and sold by the billions and created a profitable industry that manufactures and sells human biological materials.


Meanwhile, Lacks' family lived in poverty and did not know about Henrietta's "immortality" and the proliferation of and profit from her cells until 20 years after her death, when researchers began studying her husband and children, again without informed consent. Skloot spent 10 years researching and writing the book, eventually getting Lacks' family to talk to her.


Historical Exhibit at Ebling Library


In conjunction with the Go Big Read program, Ebling Library in the Health Sciences Learning Center will host "Informing Consent: Unwitting Subjects in Medicine's Pursuit of Beneficial Knowledge," an exhibit of original books, magazines, newspapers and photos depicting the story of human subject experimentation, the world of Henrietta Lacks (circa 1951), the ethics of body and tissue ownership issues, the science of HeLa and the history of research and treatment at UW-Madison.


An opening celebration will be held at 4pm September 29 in the Ebling's Historical Reading Room.


More Go Big Read Resources


The Go Big Read website has a complete calendar of events and a toolkit with discussion questions along with discussion guidelines for participants and facilitators; book reviews; profiles of Skloot and more background on the Lacks family; and a reminder of the Go Big Read program goals.


A blog on the Go Big Read website has handy links to more resources on the book and links to news stories raised by the book, including a moving account of the dedication last May of a headstone at Lacks' grave.


Skloot will visit campus this fall. In addition to her talk at 7pm on Monday, October 25, at the Kohl Center, she will visit classes and meet with students. The Kohl Center event is free and open to the public. No tickets are needed.

Date Published: 09/24/2010

News tag(s):  ethicsgobigreadresearchcancer

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Last updated: 09/24/2010
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