As the movie “Red Tail” was being edited before its premier opening weekend, Tuskegee University, the historically famous black college was planning and finalizing the First Annual Bioethics Institute Conference, at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center, January 18-20, 2012.
Trailers of the Tuskegee Airmen, the subject of the “Red Tail” film, looped continuously on television screens strategically located throughout the Kellogg Center, but in the Ballroom a bevy of intellectual giants, physicians, doctors of philosophy, practitioners and professors took dais microphones and shared expertise on the subject of “Cancer Health Disparities Research.”
Driven by the many of the ethical issues revealed in the two-year top ten selling non-fiction, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, by Rebecca Skloot, this cadre of medical researchers shared pertinent information about disparities, philosophical issues, debate and rebuttal on the equality of the playing field, after 150 years, since the Abolition of Slavery. The consensus overwhelmingly supported the need to work toward the identification of disparities, and creation of programs, initiatives and advanced training for medical personnel.
Funded by a grant from the National Institute of Health, the partnership of Morehouse School of Medicine, Tuskegee University and the University of Alabama, affirmed the professional response that analyzing, updating and critiquing on-going research with an annual think tank is opportunistic toward promoting equity and eliminating disparities in health care outcomes.
And the Biomedical Center, on Tuskegee University’s campus, could to be a natural site for future training. Built after the official apology by former President Bill Clinton for the travesties of the Tuskegee experiments on syphilitic black men, the Center continues to expand its offerings.
The Tuskegee clinical studies affected over 600 rural men from Macon County, Alabama who thought they were being given free health care. They were actually being studied in various stages of the devastating disease, without knowledge or research consent.
This was the premiere bio-ethical catastrophe that continued from 1932 until 1972 and was only disclosed after a leak to the Press. Most of the men were recruited and never given medicine to eliminate syphilis, though penicillin had become the standard treatment for the disease in 1947.
Promised free meals, health care and burial insurance, some were returnees of World War II, and others in the throes of the Great Depression. Many deaths, leaving wives who were infected, and the resultant birth of children with congenital syphilis, were the outgrowth of these experiments funded by U.S Public Health Services.
Dr. Tim Turner, Dr. Stephen Olafemi Sodeke, Dr.RobertaTroy, and Dr. Vivian Carter, of Tuskegee, with cooperating support from each of the grant partners, led this inspiring program. An estimated 300 attendees were involved over the three days.
President Gilbert L. Rochon, of Tuskegee greeted the opening session attendees and shared the many new partnerships coming to the campus. Dr. Roland Pattillo, Professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine, reflected upon the history of Henrietta Lacks. The HELA Conference, the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ name, was established by Dr. Pattillo at Morehouse School of Medicine, sixteen years ago. His research with Dr. George Gey, the original scientist at Johns Hopkins, who established the HELA cell line, his mentor, was the impetus for enunciating the importance of understanding the “living history” of the Lacks family, and their agonies and sufferings. They have been primary concerns of Dr. Pattillo since coming to Atlanta. The Lacks family was isolated from information about the discoveries, advances and medical breakthroughs made using HELA cells.
Additionally, Dr. Pattillo is heading up CRIL-HELA, the Committee to Recognize the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, with fund-raising opportunities designed to make the home-place of Henrietta Lacks, in Clover, Virginia, a national historic site.
Chicago actress, Jamila Turner, a Tuskegee Master of Arts graduate, created a poignant theatrical play and led the performance about the life, from the human perspective, of Henrietta Lacks, at the Institute opening to continuous applause and curtain calls.
“Building Capacity for Bioethics Education Delivery in Research Partnerships: An Experiential National Train-the-Trainer Project at Tuskegee University is being developed, sponsored by the Bioethics Shared Resource Group of Morehouse School of Medicine, Tuskegee University; University of Alabama Cancer Consortium Committee Partnership. For more information contact: Dr. Stephen Sodeke @334-727-8220.
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