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  • History of the Morehouse School of Medicine HeLa Conferences


    The first HeLa Conference was held in Atlanta, Georgia in October 1996 and named to honor Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman who died at the age of 31 from cervical cancer and was the source of HeLa cells -the first breakthrough in growing human cells outside the body.  Deborah Lacks, one of five children left motherless by Henrietta’s death, along with her father and brothers were invited to the initial HeLa conference on the subject of cancer control.   In 1997, the BBC produced a documentary about Henrietta Lacks called "The Way of All Flesh."

    At this conference Deborah Lacks spoke to the audience and then began to speak directly to her mother, “we miss you, mama…I think of you all the time and wish I could see you and hold you in my arms, like I know you held me.  My father said you told him on your dying bed to take care of Deborah.  Thank you ma, we will see you again someday…I keep with me all I know about you deep in my soul, because I am a part of you and you are me.  We love you mama.”

    Those words riveted the conference with emotion born out of a science that permitted the development of the Polio vaccine and the HPV vaccine. These HeLa cells were utilized by five Nobel laureates just in the last nine years in their Nobel presentations.

    The initial HeLa conference was published in 1997 in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.  This “Cancer Control” symposium featured leading scientists including Dr. Howard Jones, II, who was the first doctor to see Henrietta Lacks at Johns Hopkins.  Scientific presentations included authorities from:

    • Duke University, Andrew Berchuck, et al; who addressed the conference on endometrial cancer. 
    • “Racial Differences in Breast Cancer Survival,” was presented by Dr. Michael S. Simon of the Wayne State Cancer Center, Wayne State University. 
    • “Dietary Factors in Cancers of Breast, Endometrium and Ovary among African American Women,” was presented by Dr. Margaret Hargreaves of Meharry Medical School. 
    • A stem cell presentation was made by Dr. Roland Pattillo of Morehouse School of Medicine. 

    Keynote addresses were delivered by Dr. Jocelyn Elders, then U.S. Surgeon General, and Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, then President of the Morehouse School of Medicine. Presenters that followed included Dr. Vivian Pinn, Director of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health; Dr. Harold Freeman, then Director of Harlem Hospital.

    The second conference was directed to obstetrics and was titled, “Endangered Pregnancies, Environment and Reproduction at Risk.”  Lead poisoning, the effects of hydrocarbons, inhalants, and smoking hazards were presented by a field of experts.  The second conference was published in the July 1999 issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology

    The third conference dealt with “Reproductive Failure and Assisted Reproductive Technologies.”  The fourth and fifth conferences dealt with the subject of Primary Care.  The sixth conference dealt with “Current Issues in Obstetrics and Gynecology” and was published in the April issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.  The Journal Ethnicity and Disease was the site of publications in 2006 and 2007.  Conference subjects included Birth Defects, Autism, HPV vaccine, and Disparities in Health.


    The theme of the 18th HeLa Conference is “Personalized Medicine: Genome Testing and Genomic Profiles.”