Complicated ethical questions involving human rights and biotechnology are challenging students at the Vernon Malone College and Career Academy, much as they are society in general.
About a third of the 300 students at Vernon Malone, a specialized Wake County high school that offers technical training in different fields, are doing a research project this semester on the future of biotechnology and human rights.
David Kroll, a science writer and cancer pharmacologist, challenged students Wednesday to consider the lessons that can be learned from Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 and have since been used by researchers to advance medicine and science.
“Scientists want to have access to anything and everything because there’s a rush to treat disease,” Kroll told the students. “People are sick, you want to find things to treat the disease.
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“At the same time, there’s the whole privacy issue. You have a right to your medical privacy.”
Students have been reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the 2010 book by Rebecca Skloot that shed light on the life of Lacks, a poor African-American woman from southern Virginia. Kroll was one of the scientific reviewers of the book.
Students will also read “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley and “Eva” by Peter Dickinson.
Tumor cells that were taken from Lacks while she was being treated for cervical cancer were kept alive and mass produced. The HeLa cell line has been used to aid in important medical discoveries, including treating polio, cancer and HIV/AIDS.
“Students need to learn about her so they can inform and tell others about Henrietta Lacks, who is an African-American hero,” said Felisher Ongera, 15, a sophomore from Garner.
Lacks’ family didn’t learn until the 1970s that the cells had been removed. Federal and international bodies are debating what changes to make in rules involving genetic information and consent for medical research.
Kroll, who has extensive scientific research ties in the Triangle, asked students to consider an ethical question that he said they could confront in their lifetimes. He asked the students if they and their partner discovered that they would pass along a disease to their child, should they have the right through in-vitro fertilization to replace the bad gene with a normal one?
Many students didn’t answer Kroll. Sascha Anderson, 16, a sophomore from Garner, was among the students who didn’t raise a hand yes or no.
“For some reasons it would be beneficial, because some people just have those potentials for those diseases and they really want kids,” Anderson said in an interview. “But I saw the downside because they were talking about taking it further and you could genetically modify eye color, hair color and other things like that so I didn’t really agree with that side of it.”
All students at the school are working on projects with the theme of human rights/civil rights. Thom Tomlinson, the school’s science department chairman, said human rights is an appropriate focus considering the school is named after the late Vernon Malone, a former state Senator, Wake County commissioner and Wake County school board member.
“Most of us who have been around long enough to have known his actions when he was alive, it just fills us with pride to know that we’re helping these kids explore a topic that was close to his heart,” Tomlinson said of Malone.