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Lecture hall full of people.
By Elizabeth Dwyer Sandlin

UNM Health Sciences Distinguished Diversity Scholar Returns Home

Unveiling Humanity Matters: Henrietta Lacks’ HeLa Cells and HER Impact on Research, Health, and Equity

The HSC Diversity Scholar series was initiated in 2012 by the HSC Office for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in partnership with the UNM Division of Equity & Inclusion and the UNM School of Law. The intention of the HSC Diversity Visiting Scholar Program was to bring nationally and internationally recognized scholars, educators, practitioners and leaders on issues of diversity and inclusion in residence to UNM.

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Over a decade ago, Professor Alford first shared her ground-breaking work with the UNM community by creating a bridge between legal and medical education through story telling —what she refers to as "HER stories"—the unique and particularized lived experiences of black women intersecting with health care and research.

In 2012, she served as the UMM HSC Inaugural Diversity Visiting Scholar, then returned in 2018, and again in 2019 as UNM's Distinguished Diversity Scholar Luncheon speaker.

As part of this continuing tradition of interdisciplinary and interprofessional collaborative efforts, highly acclaimed law professor Deleso Alford, J.D., LL.M. was invited back to our University of New Mexico community, as the 2024 UNM HSC Distinguished Diversity Visiting Scholar. This year, the tri-partnership expanded to include the UNM African American Student Services and the UNM Algorithmic Justice Project.

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I stand before you recommending that you all engage in intentional collaboration, so with that intentionality we are moving forward. Because we all need each other.
Professor Deleso A. Alford, JD, LLM, 2024 UNM HSC Distinguished Diversity Visiting Scholar

In a riveting event held at UNM's Domenici Auditorium on Tuesday, March 5, attendees were granted profound insights into the legacy and ethical implications of Mrs. Henrietta Lacks' HeLa cells, thanks to the expertise of featured speaker Deleso A. Alford, JD, LLM, the Rachel Emanuel Endowed Professor of Law and Southern University Law Center of the Health Equity, Law & Policy Institute.

Introduced by Health and Health Sciences EVP and CEO Dr. Doug Ziedonis and HSC Vice President and Executive Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer Dr. Valerie Romero-Leggott, Professor Alford was heralded as a pivotal figure in bridging academia with actionable change towards a better future. Her address captivated the audience, shedding light on the intricate dynamics of her work and the broader implications for academic endeavors.

Professor Alford's journey into advocacy began with a seemingly innocuous article she penned in 2012 as part of her tenure track duties as a law professor, entitled “HeLa Cells and Unjust Enrichment in the Human Body.” Little did she know, this act of scholarly expression would transform into a catalyst for deliberate action and collaboration within the advocacy sphere, as emphasized by Professor Alford's subsequent endeavors.

“I stand before you...recommending that you all engage in intentional collaboration, so with that intentionality... we are moving forward. Because we all need each other,” Professor Alford said.

Students with Professor Alford.

Central to the discourse was the narrative of Mrs. Henrietta Lacks, who Professor Alford has been recently acknowledged as the "Mother of Modern Day Medicine." In 1951, Mrs. Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, underwent treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins, where her cells were harvested without her consent or knowledge. Nor was she warned about the risk of infertility.  This act characterized by medical exploitation and racial injustice marked the initial disassociation of Mrs. Henrietta Lacks from her own HeLa cells, which has since underpinned us medical breakthroughs, including the development of the polio vaccine, gene mapping, HPV vaccines, advancements in in vitro fertilization, COVID 19 testing and many more.

The exploitation of Mrs. Henrietta Lacks' cells serves as a poignant illustration of the legal concept of Unjust Enrichment, wherein one-party benefits unfairly at the expense of another. Moreover, Mrs. Lacks' experience underscores the profound impact of Social Determinants of Health Equity and Political Determinants of Health Equity, highlighting systemic injustices that perpetuate health disparities among marginalized communities.

“During enslavement,” Professor Alford said, “Black women were legally categorized as property- a human cash crop. So, from the outset, healthcare for Black women was not about healthcare, it was about fixing broken property.”

She went on to emphasize the consequences of ignoring this painful history, namely a persistence in explicit bias among healthcare providers, and racist healthcare practices that are implicitly condoned by systems built on the foundations of white supremacy.

In 2021, when the family of Mrs. Henrietta Lacks filed a lawsuit against biotech company,  Thermo Fisher Scientific citing Unjust Enrichment, renowned Civil Rights Attorney Ben Crump shared that her 2012 law review article served as a catalyst and theory of the case for  the filing of the Lacks’ family’s complaint, and invited Professor Alford to write an amicus brief for the case, in order to contribute her expertise and insights to the current proceedings.

At the event on Tuesday, Professor Alford's impassioned plea for dignity and respect in patient care resonated deeply with the audience. "That's the point I really want to get to," she affirmed, "Where we don't have to go as far as enacting these legal precedents, but where a patient is seen as a person, deserving of dignity, and they are then treated as such."

As attendees left the Domenici Auditorium, they carried a deeper understanding of Mrs. Henrietta Lacks' legacy and a renewed commitment to championing equity and justice in healthcare and beyond. Professor Alford's call to action echoes long after the event, inspiring individuals to effect meaningful change in their respective spheres of influence.

In commemorating Mrs. Henrietta Lacks' enduring contribution to science, Professor Alford’s Humanity Matters presentations transcends mere discourse, beckoning humanity to confront its past injustices and strive towards a future defined by compassion, equity, and respect for all.

 

Additional Presentations

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Professor Alford's thoughtful presentation was followed by a more intimate talk to further engage in what she refers to as "necessary conversations" with UNM Main Campus, facilitated by Dr. Zerai. On Wednesday, March 6, 2024, she was welcomed to an 8:30 am meet and greet with HSC faculty and staff, facilitated by Dr. Romero-Leggott. At 12:00 noon, during UNM Law School Colloquium, Professor Alford presented the law faculty with a timely and honest presentation entitled, “Henrietta Lacks Litigation Update and Its Impact on Legal Education: Scholarship Matters!” facilitated by Professors Sonia Rankin and Laura Gomez. She engaged in another necessary conversation with the African American Student Services (AASS) facilitated by Danelle Kirven, representing Director Brandi Stone before her final UNM School of Law Community lecture, entitled “Henrietta Lacks Litigation Update and Its Impact on Society: “HER-story Matters!” facilitated by Professor Sonia Rankin.

Categories: Community Engagement, Diversity