Weighing Rights and Responsibilities in Medical Research
By Charles Buchanan
Henrietta Lacks was not a doctor. She was a poor African-American tobacco farmer and housewife from Virginia. But she has helped heal untold numbers of people around the world. And she is playing a crucial role in the development of new treatments for everything from cancer and AIDS to genetic diseases.
Before Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, scientists at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University took some of her tumor cells and cultured them; to their surprise, those cells kept growing and dividing, becoming the world’s first immortal cell line, known as “HeLa.” They’re still growing today in laboratories around the world—including UAB—and nearly every biomedical scientist has worked with them. Researchers have swapped HeLa genes, pelted them with radiation and viruses, and launched them into space—studies that have led to the development of common medicines and major breakthroughs including the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping.
Lacks’s cells are one of the most important tools in biomedical science, but she never knew they were taken from her. The cells were removed without her consent, and her family wasn’t told about them for two decades. In the meantime, HeLa became part of a multimillion-dollar industry, yet none of her descendants received any profits; many still can’t afford health insurance. Lacks’s name and medical records also were released without permission, adding to the family’s confusion and mistrust.
Translating U.S. Culture for International Students
By Susannah Felts
UAB's International Mentoring Program pairs international students such as Hwasoon Kim and Michael Gottwald (left) with student mentors such as Chinazor Iwuaba and Nathan Hadley (right).
Every August, more than 200 international students arrive on UAB’s campus from all corners of the globe. Numerous challenges and adventures await them, from mastering Birmingham’s bus system to the first bites of Southern-style barbecue. But each of these students can tap into an experienced local guide as he or she becomes acclimated to a new culture: a volunteer from UAB’s International Mentoring Program.
Founded in 1997 and run as a joint initiative of Student Life and International Scholar and Student Services, the program accepts 14 students to be trained as mentors each fall. It was designed in response to a clear need, explains director Lura Foreman: An international student who was unhappy at UAB decided to leave the university, and in doing so wrote a letter suggesting that a mentoring program might help future students have a better experience.
Reaching Out to Guatemalan Women
By Jo Lynn Orr
After seeing the needs of Guatemalan women firsthand as a graduate student, Nancee Neel helped start an organization to support women and girls through education, health care, and community building. Photo courtesy Rebecca Daubert
The first time Nancee Neel visited Guatemala, she sensed an immediate connection. “I felt I had come home,” she recalls. It wasn’t the country’s breathtaking landscape of soaring mountains, lush cloud forests, and dazzling coastlines that drew her in; it was the people. “They are just amazing,” she says, “so loving and warm.”
Neel, an alumna of the UAB School of Public Health and former assistant professor in the school’s Department of Maternal and Child Health, first traveled to Guatemala in 1987 with David Coombs, Ph.D. (now professor emeritus of health behavior), to research her thesis for a master’s degree in public health. She returned the next year, and lived in Guatemala for six months while collecting information for her doctoral dissertation. Since then, she has gone back many times to learn more about the country’s culture, visit with friends, and make new ones.
Seeking a way to improve the lives and health of Guatemalan women living in rural areas, Neel began informally working with a local cooperative called Pop Atz’iaq in 2004. She helped establish a microcredit fund for women and an educational scholarship program for girls. Then in 2006, she and some friends in Birmingham started Threads Weaving Dreams, a nonprofit organization that provides resources and support to Guatemalan women and their families through education, health care, and community building.
The Threads group also works with a clinic called Primeros Pasos, which has established the Stairway to Good Health (Escalera a Una Buena Salud) program to improve the health of women through nutrition education and other health-promotion efforts. Another Stairway goal is to improve participating women’s self-esteem and leadership qualities, and to foster community participation and awareness of gender and identity.
“It is an amazing three-year program,” Neel says. “The first year targets health education, including preventive measures and how to recognize different kinds of illnesses, as well as issues that arise at the family and community levels. They really educate the women, many of whom never had the opportunity to attend school. The second year is about empowerment—self-esteem, gender issues, participation in the political process—issues that the women have never had formal instruction in.”