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Beaumont sponsors free OU event with best-selling author Rebecca Skloot

January 9, 2013

ROCHESTER — A lot has changed in the world of research and clinical trials since the cells of Henrietta Lacks were taken without her knowledge in 1951.

In 1951, the poor tobacco farmer developed a strangely aggressive cancer, and doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took a tissue sample without her knowledge. Beaumont officials said she died without knowing that her cells would become immortal — the first to grow and survive indefinitely in culture. Although those cells — known in the medical world as HeLa — became what many see as one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and more, Lacks remained virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Beaumont Health System’s Cancer Clinical Trials and Community Health Education program is bringing Rebecca Skloot, author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” to Oakland University to speak to the public about her book. Skloot will also sell books and sign autographs at the event.

“The issue of this story was that she never consented to give her cancer to research, and yet they took it and they made a cell line that became very famous and useful,” said Dr. George Wilson, scientific director of the Beaumont BioBank — a facility that collects specimens from patients for research. “Her cells have been generated in labs all over the world for years, and her family knew nothing of it. … It’s led to the polio vaccine, and I used it back in England years ago. It’s just one of those cell lines that really has been in use worldwide and, at the end of the day, it’s her cells still.”

Through a grant funded by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health, the free event will take place 7-8:30 p.m. Jan. 16 in the Gold Room at the Oakland Center, 2200 N. Squirrel Road in Rochester.

Registration is required. To register, visit or call (800) 633-7377.

The event is open to community members, physicians and students, but minorities are especially encouraged to attend to learn about the availability of cancer clinical trials at Beaumont.

“We wanted to educate not only the public in general, but minorities, and the medical community, about how things are different now. Informed consent is required before any type of bio specimen is obtained from anybody for research purposes,” said Robin Duris, assistant nurse manager for cancer clinical trials at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak.

One of the biggest issues in clinical trials, according to Wilson, is getting minorities to enlist.

“Every race is different in the way they actually respond to certain drugs, et cetera, et cetera, so we have a program here where we’re really trying to encourage as many different minorities and races to really get involved in both research and the clinical trials as well,” he said.

Informed consent and confidentiality are key parts of today’s research, Wilson added.

“We do it very differently these days. The most important thing is to inform the patient as to what we are going to do with the specimen that we are going to collect from them,” he said. “What we do nowadays is, every single patient who wants to get involved in research is consented, and we have a very robust consent form that is administered by research nurses and takes maybe 35-40 minutes to go through it with each patient so that they know exactly what is going to happen to their specimen.”

Beaumont’s BioBank has been in operation for four years now, and Wilson said almost 3,000 patients at Beaumont have given consent for their specimens to be used in clinical trials. Clinical trials are research studies managed by government agencies, educational institutions, private not-for-profit organizations or commercial businesses to develop, produce and evaluate the effectiveness of new treatments and therapies for diseases, according to Beaumont officials.

“We have many, many different studies, and those 3,000 patients have generated about 70,000 specimens for us,” Wilson said.

For more information about Beaumont Health System, visit

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