The Browning Cinema recently screened The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The evening stemmed from two particular connections at Notre Dame. Inside the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, the film was a natural choice as Renée Elise Goldsberry, who stars at Henrietta Lacks in the film and is known for her work on Broadway in Hamilton, will be performing in the Leighton Concert Hall on February 23. Across campus, the film continued the longstanding partnership between the Browning Cinema and the Harper Cancer Research Institute. That partnership aims to offer films that address cancer while offering insights from the scientists at the institute who work on the cutting-edge of these complex issues daily.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a natural pairing for the Harper Institute as the film addresses directly ethical considerations in the cancer research field, both within a historical and contemporary framework. As cancer research expanded after World War II, scientists faced a hurdle in their laboratories: Cancer cells were incredibly slow to grow. When Henrietta Lacks, an African-American tobacco farmer of little financial means, sought treatment for an illness, she learned she had cervical cancer. And it was growing very, very quickly.
Without her consent, scientists harvested her cancer cells which allowed research to expand and occur with less wait time. They were replicated billions and billions of times over for research allowing for tremendous scientific breakthroughs. Prior to her death, Henrietta Lacks was never thanked or acknowledged; her family never told that their relative’s cells were still being used, decades on, for research. The film unpacks this story through two time periods, allowing questions of how to mediate such an ethical breach with phenomenal scientific gains.
For the Harper Institute, the story of Henrietta Lacks still presents pressing issues. What was unknown until the 1980s was that Ms. Lacks’ cancer cells were growing rapidly because of she carried the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), the most common cause of cervical cancer that makes cancer cells grow at accelerated rates—a realization that led to a Noble Prize in Medicine for Harald zur Hausen in 2008. Fortunately, HPV is a disease that can be eradicated, but not without further determination and concerted efforts to get both women and men, in particular, younger women and men, to discuss vaccination with their doctors.
Dr. M. Sharon Stack, who serves as the Ann F. Dunne and Elizabeth Riley Director of Harper Cancer Research Institute as well as being the Kleiderer-Pezold Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame, spoke prior to the film. Dr. Stack used her time at the lectern to speak to the lagging rates of vaccination for HPV in Indiana. After highlighting the different strains of HPV active in Indiana, she noted that of the 50 states, Indiana lands at 46 for the number of people vaccinated for HPV. As Dr. Stack noted, community education about vaccinations is vital to increasing Indiana’s vaccination rate and general knowledge of HPV and its health repercussions.
She added to that community education by underscoring the great strides that have been made in reducing cervical cancer when HPV vaccinations are highest. A star on the world scene there is Australia. Thanks to robust vaccination promotion, Australia is expected to eliminate cervical cancer within the decade. Dr. Stack discussed the major effort that would be required to transform Hoosier vaccination rates, but she remains optimistic. Armed with literature in multiple languages, Dr. Stack offered handouts in multiple languages about the imperativeness and benefits of HPV vaccination and encouraged the audience to now teach those around them, an excellent charge to offer and one that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks should motivate.