Black History Month: Pellissippi State faculty member discusses HeLa cells’ research contributions

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Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer whose cancerous cervical cells were taken in 1951 without her knowledge, unwittingly played a role in biological research that continues today.

On Wednesday, March 6, at 2 p.m., Minoo Askari, a faculty member in Natural and Behavioral Sciences at Pellissippi State Community College, discusses Lacks’ contributions to scientific research in the presentation “HeLa Cells—Contributions to Modern Science.”

Part of the college’s 2012-13 Common Book experience, the discussion is based on the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a New York Times bestseller by Rebecca Skloot. The author spent more than a decade researching and writing about Lacks and her family.

Pellissippi State’s Common Book is required reading for select courses and is the centerpiece for activities throughout the year. It is being used as a discussion springboard for such issues as the birth of bioethics, the history of medical research involving African-Americans and the legal battles over informed consent.

The cells taken from Lacks in 1951 were discovered to be “immortal”: they can grow indefinitely and be frozen for decades, divided into different batches, and shared among scientists.

Henrietta Lacks’ cells were coined “HeLa” cells by Dr. George Gey, a researcher and physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Her cells became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for development of the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and other applications.

Askari offers an overview of the history of how cells from one tumor have become a foundation for the groundbreaking biological research that continues even now. The discussion includes a look at how HeLa cells have been used in research into HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, cancer, and the effects of radiation and toxic chemicals. The event is free and open to the public.

The discussion is 2-3 p.m. at Pellissippi State’s Hardin Valley Campus in the Goins Building Auditorium. For additional information, call (865) 694-6400 or visit

To request accommodations for a disability, contact the executive director of Human Resources and Affirmative Action at (865) 694-6607 or