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Origin of HeLa cells continues to impact research ethics

The modern medical world owes a lot to HeLa cells: the polio vaccine, cancer treatments and in vitro fertilization, to name a few. It was the first immortal cell line, or group of tissue samples that could survive in a lab – and reproduce indefinitely. This characteristic made the cells ideal for research environments. HeLa cells became a catalyst for medical progress, from studying gene mapping to cancerous activity, and the cells remain in high demand today, even 60 years after the initial sample was collected.

Yet the source of those cells, Henrietta Lacks, never gave consent for her tissue samples to be used in research. And her family didn’t either.

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In the News: U of M bioethicist discusses South Africa’s ‘Dr. Death’

For Steven Miles, M.D., a University of Minnesota Medical School professor and bioethicist in the University’s Center for Bioethics, the recent conviction by a medical licensing board of South Africa’s Dr. Wouter Basson, widely known as ‘Dr. Death,’ was the culmination of hard work by a lot of different people determined to do the right thing.

Basson, a cardiologist from Cape Town, was found guilty of dishonorable professional conduct for violating medical ethics for developing chemical weapons and for abetting kidnappings and murder when he directed “Project Coast” for the apartheid regime.

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AHC Gamechangers: Steven Miles

Dr. Steven Miles, professor in the Center for Bioethics and the Medical School at the University of Minnesota, has built a medical career around his concern for the ethics of healthcare and dignity of others. Miles’ work has changed end-of-life care, treatment practices in nursing homes, refugee camp medicine, and military medical practices. Miles’ concern for quality of life among the elderly and disenfranchised has motivated his career and taken him to new heights within the field of bioethics.

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Can what you see in movies and on television prompt a conversation on bioethics?

We see it all the time: actors in film and on television making bold, dynamic choices for the good of their patients or to move a story forward in a profound or dramatic way.

Often, viewers are left wondering: would that ever really happen?  Well, the University of Minnesota’s Center of Bioethics wants to provide an answer.

Modeled after the popular Mini Medical School program, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics is encouraging people to attend one, two, or all three sessions of its Mini Bioethics Academy. Registration is now open for the fall series “Bioethical Issues in Film and Television.”

Using clips from “House” and “My Sister’s Keeper,” faculty from the Center for Bioethics will facilitate discussions on the ethical issues raised in film and television programs. Featured ethicists John Song, M.D., , Daniel Groll, Ph.D. and Maryam Valapour, M.D. will discuss topics in bioethics such as clinical medicine and the influence of culture on organ transplant norms.

The upcoming sessions will be held on Mondays in November on the St. Paul Campus.

Event details:


Mondays, November 12, 19 and 26, 6:30-8:30 p.m.


St. Paul Student Center


Advance registration: $20 per session or $50 for all three sessions. U of M student rate: $10 per session or $25 for all three sessions. Same day registration (at the door, space permitting): $25

For registration and further information see Mini Bioethics Academy, or call 612-624-9440.

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