Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke to a packed Kanbar Performance Space crowd Sept. 15 about the ethically challenging scientific discovery discussed in Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the book selected for this year’s First Year Experience summer reading program.
Lacks was a working-class, African-American woman born in 1920 who later contracted and died from cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge or permission, her doctors took a sample of her cells to use in scientific research, a concept Caplan referred to as biobanking. This sample became the first self-perpetuating line of cells used in medical research and is still in use today. It has been used in research leading to a number of medical discoveries since her death.
Caplan’s expertise in the field of bioethics helped students understand the ethical dilemmas posed by Lacks’ case, particularly the unauthorized use of her cells. Caplan explained that because of the controversy in this case, patients now must sign consent forms for medical procedures.
Caplan also addressed the ethical storm brewing last week about the Gardasil vaccine against HPV virus that prevents about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. The vaccine typically is given to girls around the age of 12
Caplan had denounced claims made last week by Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann that the vaccine had caused mental retardation in a young woman. In a widely reported move, Caplan called Bachmann’s statements irresponsible and offered to pay $10,000 to charity if she could prove her claim.
During the lecture, Caplan and audience members discussed the vaccine facts and whether Bachmann’s comments would undermine public health efforts. “Compare by looking at the dead bodies,” Caplan said. “Even if there’s a little risk, it’s still worth it.”
At the University of Pennsylvania, Caplan conducts research on such issues as transplantation ethics, genetics, reproductive technologies and health policy, among other topics related to bioethics. Caplan is the author of several published books and writes a column on bioethics for MSNBC.com.