Featured alumni of the University of Colorado School of Pharmacy: Sandra Leal, PharmD, CDE (repost)

I had the great pleasure last week to visit the launchpad of my academic career: the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado School of Pharmacy.  Recently relocated from the historic 9th & Colorado campus in Denver, the School currently occupies academic and research buildings at the impressive new University of Colorado Denver’s Anschutz Medical Campus six miles east in the city of Aurora.

Next year, the UCD School of Pharmacy will be celebrating the centennial of its establishment on the University of Colorado at Boulder main campus. In a discussion with Dana Brandorff, Director of Communications and Alumni Affairs, about potential centennial publicity activities, I suggested that the School feature some of its more noteworthy alumni.

As an example, I wish to offer this repost of an interview with one of my own former students, Sandra Leal, as written on October 10, 2009, for the Diversity in Science blog carnival in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Note: The following post appeared originally at the former ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata on 10 October 2009.


This month, DrugMonkey is hosting the Diversity in Science Blog Carnival, started by DN Lee of Urban Science Adventures! to celebrate the scientific contributions of individuals from underrepresented groups. To celebrate US Hispanic Heritage Month, DM asked for us “to write and submit your posts in honor of scientists whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central or South America.”

One of the greatest rewards of being an academic scientist is watching remarkable people pass through your laboratory and classroom who then go on to do amazing things. Upon reading Drug’s call, my mind turned immediately to a perfect subject for this carnival. Continue reading

Amy Bishop indicted for 1986 shooting murder of brother

Was just checking the old SiteMeter stats before foraging for dinner and saw a surge in search hits for “Amy Bishop.”
Yup. Lo and behold she has been charged with murder – for the 1986 death of her brother.
From an article an hour ago by Donovan Slack and Shelley Murphy at the Boston Globe:

The slaying of Seth Bishop was declared an accident by Norfolk County authorities at the time. But questions were raised about the investigation after Bishop, a college professor, was charged in February in a shooting rampage at the University of Alabama Huntsville. Three of Bishops’ colleagues were fatally shot and three wounded in that case.
[District Attorney William R.] Keating said an indictment warrant has been lodged with Alabama authorities. He indicated that he would give the Alabama triple murder case priority. Asked whether Bishop would ever be tried in Massachusetts for murder, Keating said, “You never know.”
. . .Shortly after the Alabama shootings, Keating launched a review of the Braintree slaying and concluded that Bishop should have been charged at the time with assault with a dangerous weapon, unlawful possession of a firearm and illegal possession of ammunition.
Keating also found that police reports, along with crime scene photos, suggested Bishop may have intentionally shot her brother. One photo of her bedroom, where she had loaded the 12-gauge shotgun, showed a National Enquirer article chronicling actions similar to Bishop’s that day. The article reported that a teenager wielding a 12-gauge shotgun killed the parents of actor Patrick Duffy, who played Bobby Ewing on the television show, “Dallas,” and then commandeered a getaway car at gunpoint from an auto dealership.

Many a “what if?” reverberating across the Southland this evening.
The following list provides our previous posts on the gut-wrenching Amy Bishop murders at the University of Alabama – Huntsville:

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What does it take to knock off K2 Spice readership?

Just the other day, I wrote about how DrugMonkey and I have experienced unprecedented and sustained blog traffic for posts we wrote in February on K2 Spice, one of a couple of marijuana-like “incense” products still sold legally in the United States.
Every morning, I dial up my SiteMeter blog statistics and take a look at what posts readers first land upon when coming to visit the humble world headquarters of Terra Sigillata.
Last week, 2,700 to 2,800 of the 4,000 most recent hits were landing on our February K2 Spice post. (You will also note below the sad state of my readership in that posts on Stiff Nights erectile dysfunction supplement and Horny Goat Weed products are the next most popular direct hits.)
Finally, one post has knocked it out of the top spot after nearly four months:
Monday’s post about the memorial unveiling of the gravestone for Henrietta Lacks this past weekend.
Henrietta Lacks knocks off K2 Spice.jpg
I have been completely overwhelmed by the interest in this story. This widespread attention would not be possible without the Facebook and blog referrals by author Rebecca Skloot, The New York Times Science page, and the enthusiastic Twitter referrals by other writers who I respect greatly such as David Dobbs, Sara Goforth, Mike Rosenwald, T. DeLene Beeland, Ted Winstead, scribbler50, Eric Ferreri, – as well as the dozens of you sci/med bloggers and folks from other walks of life who found this post worthy of recommending to your friends.
Please accept my apologies if you were not mentioned by name – I don’t have Bora Zivkovic’s flair for aggregating and linking to every referral but you have my gratitude for further popularizing the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family.
And for those of you so inclined, here are images of the memorial program that weren’t included in the last post:

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Marking the magnificent memory of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks gravestone 05.30.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpg
In addition to my own photos herein, Tom McLaughlin posted a nice slide show of the day at his South Boston News & Record.

Despite two trees that snapped and fell in my driveway within six feet of my car in an impressive thunderstorm Friday evening, I drove on Saturday morning to Clover, Virginia, for the dedication of a gravestone that finally marks the final resting place of Henrietta Lacks, a concrete honor, if you will, to recognize the source of one of the most valuable medical tools of the 20th century and today.

For those who are not regular readers, Henrietta Lacks was a rural tobacco farmer, mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend from southern Virginia who developed an unusually aggressive case of cervical cancer while living in Baltimore in 1951. While being treated at Johns Hopkins University, surgeons excised pieces of her tumor in an ongoing effort by the laboratory of Dr. George Gey to establish a continuously growing human tumor cell line in culture, a feat that had only been previously accomplished with mouse cells. Ms. Lacks’s cells are today known by the name, HeLa (hee-luh), and have been used from the fifties in testing the effectiveness of the original Salk polio vaccine up through today providing the basis for the new cervical cancer vaccines. I would not be overstating the case to say that most biomedical scientists have at one time or another worked with HeLa cells.
Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 250px.jpgHowever, the identity of Henrietta Lacks as the unknowing donor of the cells that gave rise to so many medical discoveries – a poor Black woman, mind you – as well as the story of her family and their travails at the hand of the medical establishment had largely gone untold until the 1980s, even among scientists themselves.

But with the help of the family – especially Henrietta’s late daughter, Deborah – scientists, historians, and her own tenacious investigative skills, journalist and author Rebecca Skloot spent the last ten years researching and gorgeously crafting a book on the HeLa story that has become this year’s best-selling non-fiction gem, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. If you have not yet read the book, you are missing out on what Dwight Garner of The New York Times called, “one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time.”

A black woman, a white boy, and a PhD
My own interest in the story extends beyond my general fascination with the history of science and medicine. It is far more personal.

As I wrote in November on the 20th anniversary of my PhD dissertation defense, HeLa cells were the primary experimental system for my study of the anticancer drug target, DNA topoisomerase IIα. Moreover, HeLa cells were also the source of genomic DNA I needed to understand the enzyme’s regulation when I started my own laboratory in 1992. They ended up providing the topic of the first published paper from my independent group: me, my first PhD student, and first technician.

So when I learned that from the South Boston (VA) News & Record that the Lacks family had planned a memorial dedication service for Ms. Lacks’s headstone, I just had to attend.

The headstone was provided by a Morehouse School of Medicine donation from Dr. Roland Pattillo and his wife, Pat. Dr. Pattillo is an ob/gyn physician-scientist at the Morehouse School of Medicine who has largely been the medical guardian of the Lacks family and who provided the entré to Ms. Skloot after she convinced him of her sincerity in telling the story of the family and their matriarch. Pattillo is also himself a notable scientist of historic stature and a living connection to Dr. George Gey. Among his own four decades of accomplishments, Dr. Pattillo worked at Hopkins with Gey in the sixties on the hormonal aspects of neuroendocrine tumors and, as detailed in a 1968 Science paper, established the BeWo choriocarcinoma cell line, the first immortalized line to produce human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). hCG is the hormone produced by the placenta that is detected in clinical and home pregnancy tests.
Kroll Pattillo 05.29.10 002 copyright David J Kroll.jpgTo the right is Dr. Pattillo at the gravesite with an unnamed science blogger showing off his 20-year-old dissertation. To the right are two Lacks family members sharing addresses on top of Skloot’s book. You’ll note that the gravestone is also in the shape of a book, representing the many stories that have come from the legacy of Henrietta Lacks.

The service began at St. Matthew Baptist Church in Clover, the church where Henrietta had been a member since 1932. My intention had been just to drive up and quietly pay my respects, maybe even get a photo of my dissertation at Henrietta’s gravesite. Such intentions were derailed by one of the nice usherette ambassadors at St Matthew who asked if I was a dignitary (no) but then insisted that I sit with the press and go have a word with the pastor, Reverend Alfred Chandler.

Reverend Chandler then asked that I speak to the standing room-only congregation that included dozens of Lacks family members about how my personal and professional life had been touched by the woman from Clover. Time was set aside for friends and family to share such brief reflections.

Just as an aside: I’ve now lived in the South for a third of my life. For the last ten years I’ve lived in a town with an equal 45% African-American and White population and am a prof at a historically-Black university. It never ceases to amaze me how warmly welcoming the Black community has been to me, everywhere from Virginia to Florida, and in a manner that belies the converse treatment of the community for centuries. In fact, if I could join a Black congregation, I’d probably still be going church.

I was beaming when I learned that the first scripture reading was the famous Ecclesiastes passage (3:1-8) upon which Pete Seeger wrote Turn! Turn! Turn! (The song was made popular by The Byrds in 1965 and discussed on this blog, with a Byrds reunion performance, here.). In the context of the other speakers, it was clear that this day was one to heal, build up, laugh, dance, and, most certainly, a time to embrace – I haven’t been hugged so much since my last visit with my large family from New Jersey.
Kimberley Lacks 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpgOpening words on behalf of the Lacks family were offered by Kimberley Lacks, daughter of Sonny Lacks, granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks. Kimberley stressed a major point that Skloot’s book did so extraordinarily well: for us to remember that her grandmother was a real woman who worked in the fields, cooked, danced, and wanted the world for her children like any other parent.

Kimberley then expressed the families gratitude for those who did just that, first and foremost thanking Rebecca Skloot for her ten-year journey with the family and scientists worldwide to bring the Henrietta Lacks story to the attention of all people, not just us in science and medicine.

Then, Kimberley said something I want all writers to know:

“Thanks to the media for bringing the story of Henrietta Lacks to the world.”

I joked with the writers and TV folks there as to when the last time was that they were expressly thanked for their work. But remember this, my journalism friends: you do make a difference. Because of this essential role you play in society, we just have to figure how to make the profession more financially viable for as many of you as possible in the new media landscape.

I had the distinct pleasure of being seated next to Attorney William Bryant Claiborne and his wife. Attorney Claiborne is a proud graduate of Virginia State University, a superb HBCU in Petersburg, and then earned a law degree at the University of Virginia. His colleagues thought he was out of his mind to come back to his rural home to practice but he reminded me that his home folk need legal services just as badly as those in Richmond and DC. Mr. Claiborne certainly walks that talk – also serving on the Halifax County Board of Supervisors. In this capacity, he presented the Lacks family (below) with a resolution honoring Henrietta Lacks, saying “we are so proud she lies in our county.”
Claiborne Halifax Co resolution 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpg
A rare experience for a scientist
While anxiously reflecting on the comments I was about to give, I recalled the fact that I felt embarrassed that my dissertation included nothing more about HeLa cells than the paragraph excerpted in this post, and certainly nothing about the woman from whom the cells were derived. Twenty years later, this is an even more glaring omission. So, I used the opportunity to thank the family for the gift of their matriarch. While I couldn’t change the past treatment of the family, I can play a part in moving forward and was therefore honored to be asked by Rebecca Skloot to serve with Dr. Pattillo on the board of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation to bring scholarship support to today’s young descendants. (Rebecca is donating a portion of book proceeds to the Foundation.)

And I didn’t even think about this until I was standing before the congregation – I told the family that I would be honored for them to sign my dissertation because this PhD work was as much theirs as mine.

I also had a few other things to say regarding the impact of HeLa cells on me personally and professionally and on other scientists and physicians around the world and how literally world-famous Henrietta Lacks is now. This gift of their matriarch, through her own suffering, has facilitated our efforts to relieve the suffering of literally millions of other people. The use of HeLa cells (and other cell lines overtaken by HeLa cells) led to the development of some drugs that treated my own mother who was stricken with a lymph node-positive breast cancer when I was a junior in college, stimulating me to become a cancer researcher and allowing her to now be a 26-year breast cancer survivor.

I was also sure to address the young people in the audience, family and otherwise, to encourage them in science and medicine and offered our them an open invitation to visit with us in our laboratories and classrooms in the Research Triangle area.

These words got some applause and a few Amens and “Praise Jesus!” – affirmations and feedback that we rarely get in the context of university auditoriums and seminar programs. Knowing more about the Black church since moving to the South makes these affirmations even more meaningful.

I do not yet have the writing skills to adequately express how moving this experience was for me to have the opportunity to face the family and express my gratitude that the life I have today – the wife, daughter, house, guitars – stems from a story of injustice across the decades. Because of today’s clinical guidelines for anonymizing human tissue specimens, we most often have no idea as to who exactly provided the biological research tools we use in the laboratory. But to be hugged by Sonny Lacks and literally and philosophically embraced by so many of the family is an experience I will never forget.

And now that several dozen members of the Lacks family have autographed and inscribed my dissertation, it somehow seems more complete.
Veronica Spencer inscription 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpg
Jackson inscription 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpg

Many of the family also put in their telephone numbers, quite ironic knowing how difficult it was for Rebecca to even get family members to return her phone calls for the first couple of years of her writing.

The guest speakers that followed were uniformly outstanding beginning with Rev. Kevin Chandler, president of the Halifax NAACP chapter. Rev. Ronnie Womack, mediator of the Banister Missionary Baptist Association, gave us some of the most motivating old-time preaching, stressing that the day was one for unification – implying, to me at least, that we were there to recognize that the gift of a Black woman has impacted the lives of all racial and ethnic groups – and “that when CNN rolls across the bottom of the screen that a cure for cancer has been found,” that Henrietta Lacks will be part of that story.

The highlight for many of us was when Dr. Roland Pattillo took the pulpit to humbly note his role in the day and the generosity of he and his wife in providing the gravestone for Henrietta Lacks together with the Morehouse School of Medicine. In noting that over 60,000 peer-reviewed publications have made use of HeLa cells, Pattillo told us that even today, another such paper is published at a rate of one every two hours. Dr. Pattillo is deserving of his own blog post and I look forward to telling more of his story.

At the other end of the spectrum was the next speaker, a remarkable young man, freshman congressman Rep. Tom Perriello (I can say that because he’s about a decade my junior). An undergrad and law graduate of Yale University, this native of Virginia’s 5th district reflected on his work in West Africa where polio continues to afflict millions despite the millions saved in Western nations thanks to the role HeLa cells played early in vaccine development. Perriello excerpted a resolution he read into the Congressional Record last Friday honoring Henrietta Lacks (“Honoring Henrietta Pleasant-Lacks” full text and PDF).

As a side note, I drove past many advertisements for his Republican opponent, Robert Hurt, that read, “HURT U.S. Congress.”

My immediate thoughts were, no thank you – you’ve hurt it enough already.

Perriello is an energetic politician who causes Republicans to froth because of his dedication to the military, international relations, workforce development, and establishment of faith-based aid groups while also putting forth such heresy and tyranny as affordable health care and asking his campaign workers to also “tithe” hours on community service projects unrelated to the election. His district runs from the North Carolina border to north of Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, where his support is quite strong. I took it as a compliment that Rep. Perriello stopped me afterward to say I’d make a good politician – if it meant being like him, I would.

Reverend Alfred Chandler then closed with words that I think we can all do well to remember – that when we see someone in our community and feel an urge to pass judgment, bear in mind that we have no idea as to that person’s story.

Gravestone dedication
We were then off to the Lacks family cemetery on the property of the old home-house down Lacks Town Road, an absolutely beautiful stretch of rolling farmland. The photo below was taken looking south from the intersection of Mt. Laurel and Lacks Town Rd.
Mt Laurel and Lacks Town Rd 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpg
Elsie Lacks 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpgAbout 100 people remained from the church service to dedicate the Henrietta Lacks gravestone just to the left of that of her mother, Eliza Pleasant. Another gravestone also being dedicated was that for Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter who died at age 15 at the Crownsville State Hospital, known then as The Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland. The story of Elsie and the visit there by Rebecca and Deborah Lacks has been cited by many as one of the most emotional parts of Skloot’s book.
Sonny and PRM Forester 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpgWith all of the press attention, Sonny Lacks made it a point to introduce to all NPR “Butch” Forester, the groundskeeper who maintains the previously overgrown Lacks family cemetery in its now peaceful and reverent state.
I also had the chance to walk over to the home-house where Henrietta, her husband David, and children lived. It’s tougher to see now than in the winter due to the trees and undergrowth but you can get a better glimpse of it from the photos then at Rebecca Skloot’s website.

And before heading back on the road, the church and family had a nice repast dinner with fried chicken, green beans, potato salad, macaroni salad, meatballs, rice, and – nom! – chocolate cake.

Put simply, this was the single most moving day in my life as a scientist.

A roundup of press cover of the Henrietta Lacks headstone memorial dedication:
Lauren Compton and her videographer from WSET-TV in Lynchburg
wrote this article and filed a segment from the station having only an hour to get back to the studio, thereby missing the repast. Beyond being a superb reporter, Ms. Compton did not have to refer to the songsheet to sing the words to the hymns.

I had a lovely time chatting with Denise Watson Batts of the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot who wrote “After 60 years of anonymity, Henrietta Lacks has a headstone.” Denise also had an excellent interview earlier this month in Baltimore with Sonny Lacks, eldest brother, Lawrence, and cousin Sadie Grinnan.

A superb writer, editor, and a fine gentleman, Tom McLaughlin, wrote this nicely detailed article for his South Boston News & Record. Although the press took numerous photographs at the services, only Tom put up a slideshow of 49 photos within that story. Tom and his mother, Sylvia O. McLaughlin, editor of the News & Record, are extremely proud of their newspaper and readers know that I am a huge fan of local news. The level of detail that local writers and publishers puts into such stories (or should) reminds us of the importance of sustained local reporting. I’m grateful to Tom and his Mom for sending me home with a few issues of their paper that covered Skloot’s book and the Lacks family stories. Tom’s own review of the book speaks from the viewpoint of a Southside Virginia native.

Tim Saunders from WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia, birthplace of Henrietta Lacks filed this article and video, “Halifax County community pays tribute to world famous native,” today.

A brief note appeared on June 1 on the website of Essence magazine.

Many thanks also go to Melissa Bell from The Washington Post and graduate of Northwestern University School of Journalism who patiently listened to my stories and whose work I look forward to reading.

I also want to publicly thank my lovely wife, PharmGirl, MD, and the illustrious PharmKid for understanding how much being away for this event meant to me. As always, I was on science time and a quick “couple of hours” trip took all of Saturday, a holiday weekend day we really needed to spend together after I’ve been out of town and away for other university events.

Ah, the old days with Mom: baking, knitting, extracting DNA

I did not turn on the computer yesterday (yes, it was glorious) so I missed Mother’s Day coverage in our local newspaper. When we returned home, I was happy to see that on the front page of the print copy the dean of Duke School of Medicine, Nancy Andrews, MD, PhD, was featured with her daughter in the lab on their fun Saturdays together.
Also cited and pictured in the article was Duke vice dean for research and professor of pharmacology and cancer biology, Sally Kornbluth, PhD, and her daughter.
Written by News & Observer science editor Sarah Avery, the article describes how women are increasing in ranks in biomedical degrees earned while still lagging at the associate professor level and up. This trend was cited specifically for faculty and administrators in basic science departments of medical schools but is widespread in academic science and engineering.
In 2007, I wrote about Andrews becoming the first female dean of a top 10 US medical school and expressed my bewilderment that it took that long. In fact, local attitudes were such that Andrews recalled this recollection in a NEJM article about taking the dean’s position:

…it continues to be true that we do not expect women to hold certain positions in society or medicine. Recently, I witnessed firsthand the persistence of such expectations, when my husband, our children, and I went to visit a school in North Carolina where Duke staff members had made an appointment for the family of the new dean of the medical school. As we entered the school, its principal vigorously shook my husband’s hand and welcomed him, saying, “You must be the man of the moment.” Unfortunately, it is quite understandable that it wouldn’t have crossed his mind that I might be the “woman of the moment” instead…

It’s always a Good Thing to see science featured on the front page of a region’s major newspaper, especially the Sunday edition. And I recognize that it was a nice human interest piece for Mother’s Day and you don’t want to be a cynic on such a day. So, it’s no surprise that the article didn’t address the specific challenges that women face of achieving the academic heights of Andrews and Kornbluth.
And I see only one lab coat and no eye protection in the lead photograph.

Cytogeneticist Dr. Janet Rowley receives AACR Lifetime Achievement Award

The 101st Annual Meeting of my primary professional society, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), convened in Washington, DC, on Saturday and will run through Wednesday, April 21. The theme for this year’s meeting is “Conquering Cancer Through Discovery Research,” and focuses strongly on the translation of discoveries into cancer treatments.
Although the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic dust cloud has delayed many European participants, over 17,000 attendees are expected at the Washington Convention Center where over 6,300 presentations are to be given.
AACR was founded in 1907 by 11 eminent physicians and scientists of their time and while “American” is in the name, AACR is truly an international organization.
Seven years ago, AACR instituted their Lifetime Achievement Award in Cancer Research. This year the award went to one of my heroes of cancer research, Dr. Janet D. Rowley of the University of Chicago. Dr. Rowley is best known for her work in the 1970s on chromosomal abnormalities in human cancer, specifically the translocation that involves the “Philadelphia chromosome” and led to the drug to target protein kinases, imatinib (Gleevec or Glivec).
AACR posted a five-minute interview with Dr. Rowley here and I’ll describe some history afterwards.

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This is why I blog: from rock bottom to top tier

Last July we wrote about the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and spoke of Buzz Aldrin’s autobiography about his battle with alcoholism in the years following. The post drew a comment from a reader who I’ve renamed “Anon.”

Thank you so much for this post.
I am a recovering drug addict and am in the process of applying to graduate programs. I have a stellar GPA, have assisted as an undergraduate TA, and have been engaged in research for over a year.
I also have felony and was homeless for 3 years.
I don’t hide my recovery from people once I know them, but I sometimes, especially at school, am privy to what people think of addicts when they don’t know one is sitting next to them. It scares me to think of how to discuss my past if asked at an admissions interview. Or whether it will keep me from someday working at a university.
I’ve seen a fair amount of posts on ScienceBlogs concerning mental health issues and academia, but this is the first I’ve seen concerning humanizing addiction and reminding us that addiction strikes a certain amount of the population regardless of status, family background or intelligence.
I really appreciate this post. Thank you.

Regular readers know that while I am not a substance abuse researcher, many drugs of abuse do come from my research area, natural products. Think cocaine, morphine and other opiates, psilocybin, mescaline, etc.
I also have special compassion for folks with the biochemical predisposition to substance dependence, especially as I come from a long line of alcoholics including my beloved father who I lost way too early.
With that said, I’m sure you understand how Anon’s comment hit me and how grateful I was for her appreciation. So moving was her comment in fact that I raised it to its own post. Since many of you readers are in academia and serve on graduate admissions committees, I figured you’d have some good advice for Anon.
Well, you did. Here’s the comment thread as a reminder.
And guess what? I got this e-mail from her a couple of days ago.

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What’s the difference between HeLa and HeLa S3 cells? Part III: Theodore “Ted” Puck, PhD, and the first clonal isolation of human tumor cells

This post is the third in a series on the origin and history of HeLa S3 cells. The first post details how I came about to ask this question when launching my independent research laboratory. The second post details the life and careers of the legendary physician-scientist pioneer, Dr. Florence Rena Sabin.
Today, we take up a discussion where we will finally learn the origin of HeLa S3 cells, complete with original literature citations.
A recap
We left our previous discussion with the final and still-productive years of Dr. Florence Rena Sabin. After graduating from Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1900, Dr. Sabin embarked on a nearly 40-year career at Hopkins and now-Rockefeller University, elucidating the developmental origin of the lymphatics and antibody responses to tuberculosis and training a generation of physician-scientists. She was truly a pioneer, becoming the first woman to be appointed to faculty at Johns Hopkins, their first female full professor, the first female full member (full prof-equivalent) at Rockefeller, and the first woman invited to join the National Academy of Sciences.
Upon her retirement in 1938, she returned to her native Colorado to join her sister, Mary. Near the end of World War II, she was tapped by the Colorado governor to lead a committee that would address existing public health issues in the state that would have to be solved while absorbing a large number of men and women returning from the war to civilian life. Although in her 70s, Sabin was highly effective and shared the 1950 Lasker Award for Public Service. In 1951, the University of Colorado School of Medicine honored her with the dedication of the Florence R. Sabin Research Building for Cellular Biology.
That same fall was a sharp contrast for the Virginia-born tobacco farmer, Henrietta Lacks. She, too, was spending time at Johns Hopkins. But in this case, it was because her life was being cut short at age 31 from an aggressive case of cervical cancer.
In the months before her death on October 4, 1951, cells derived from her tumor had been successfully cultured in the Hopkins laboratory of Dr. George Gey. These cells were called HeLa, so named for the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’s names, and took a place in history as the first human cell line to be continually propagated in culture. They would live on in laboratories not only at Hopkins but around the world, including that of Colorado geneticist, Dr. Theodore “Ted” Puck.
From bacteria and bacteriophage to human genetics
Puck from Rowley obit.jpgTed Puck came to Colorado a few years earlier. His 1994 autobiography in the American Journal of Medical Genetics tells you far more than I can here. Here he shares his situation before the Sabin Building became available:

On my arrival in Denver in 1948, I first became aware of the magnitude of the responsibility which I had undertaken. The total contribution of the medical school to the budget of the Department of Biophysics was $5,000 per year. All the rest was to come from grant funds. I was the only faculty member in the newly formed department which was required to present a major course to the medical students, to institute graduate training leading to the Ph.D. degree in biophysics, to conduct a post-doctoral training program for
M.D.’s and Ph.D’s, to conduct a significant research program in biophysical science, and to raise the necessary grant funds for those activities. An old unused lumber room in the basement of the medical school was cleaned out, painted, and transformed into offices and a laboratory for the department.

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What’s the difference between HeLa and HeLa S3 cells? Part II: The life and careers of Florence Rena Sabin, MD

This post is the second in a series on the origin and history of HeLa S3 cells. The first post can be found here. In this post, we discuss the life and careers (yes, careers) of the remarkable physician-scientist, Florence Rena Sabin.
“Too bad you’re not a boy, you would have made a good doctor.”
Sabin birthplace home Central City Smith College collection.jpgFlorence Rena Sabin was born in the mining town of Central City, Colorado, on November 9, 1871, two years after her sister and lifelong companion, Mary. Florence’s father. George Sabin, had moved from Vermont to Colorado in the midst of the Colorado gold rush and a notable 1859 gold strike between the towns of Central City and Black Hawk. Her mother, Serena (Rena) Miner (yes, Miner), was a Vermont school teacher in Savannah, Georgia who moved sight unseen to Black Hawk to respond to an ad for a schoolteacher. (This photograph of their home, like many in this post, are derived from The Florence R. Sabin Papers, freely available from the National Library of Medicine’s Profiles in Science Collection.)
If you’ve driven I-70 from Denver International Airport to any number of Colorado ski areas, you have passed a highway specifically built to bring you to these two former mining towns for a different kind of gold: limited stakes casino gambling.
Tough, hardscrabble living in the mountains led the family to move to Denver while Mr. Sabin continued to work in the mining business. Sadly, the girls’ mother died in childbirth in 1878 and George Sabin enrolled his daughters in a boarding school called Wolfe Hall, where both would later teach. Mr. Sabin recognized how deeply the girls were devastated by the loss of their mother and his long absences didn’t help matters. The girls were sent to live with their uncle Albert in Chicago – though not the Albert Sabin of poliovirus vaccine fame. He brought them to visit and then ultimately live with their paternal grandparents in Saxtons River, Vermont.
I belabor this issue because it was then that Florence’s grandmother remarked that one of their ancestors, Levi Sabin, had been a doctor and her father had attended medical school for two years before moving to seek his fortune in gold. Observing Florence’s love of nature and biology, her grandmother remarked, “Too bad you’re not a boy, you would have made a good doctor.”
Florence apparently took this statement as a challenge, vowing to become a doctor anyway. She finished school in Vermont and attended Smith College where she was befriended by the school physician, Dr. Grace Preston. Preston took an interest in Florence, cultivating her interest in biology and chemistry and advising her about a new university in Baltimore whose medical school would be accepting women owing in part to an unusual turn of events.
Money talks: how wise women influenced a new medical school
Founder of that eponymous university, philanthropist Johns Hopkins, had counted on income from B&O Railroad stock to establish the medical school and recruit faculty. (N.B., the peculiar extra S was because his first name was actually a family surname – source.) However, the 1890s were economically volatile times and Hopkins only had funds to open the hospital but not the medical school. As documented in the history of the university, four daughters of the university’s original trustees offered to help, with conditions:

Martha Carey Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Elizabeth King and Mary Gwinn, all unmarried, wealthy, well-educated and devoted to the new feminist movement – offered a deal. They would raise the $500,000 needed to open the school and pay for a medical school building, but only if the school would open its doors to qualified women. Arguments ensued, the pragmatists won out, and the women were given the go-ahead to try.
When the money was in hand by Christmas Eve, 1892, the Women’s Fund Committee added a strategic twist, making new demands that even the staunchest opponents of a coeducational school could not reasonably refuse. Garrett – who as daughter of the head of the B&O was able to donate about $350,000 to the effort herself – presented a list of stiff entrance requirements that would have to be met by any Hopkins applicant, male or female: proof of a bachelor’s degree, proficiency in French, German and Latin, and a strong background in physics, chemistry and biology. Hopkins’ leaders were taken aback; most of the demands appeared to have been lifted directly from an early letter by [first professor and dean, William Henry] Welch to University President Gilman – suggestions that even Welch, after he hired on, admitted he thought were impossible goals.

Yes, medical school standards varied widely at the time and these “impossible goals” pushed forward by the women established the new institution as one of the best in the United States.
To understand the prevailing attitude toward women in higher education, the following were the 1874 comments of Gilman’s colleague Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University, who called coeducation “a thoroughly wrong idea which is rapidly disappearing,” Hopkins trustees had Gilman call upon Eliot as a consultant on this issue:

“[S]tudents might fall in love, which could produce disastrous, socially unequal marriages; women would have trouble keeping up with the academic pace and hold up instruction for the men; the stress could prove so severe that the women might fall ill and destroy their chances of good marriages; and finally, a woman’s future was so different from a man’s that there was no point in educating them together.”

Thumbnail image for Sabin Smith College graduation.jpgUnfortunately, George Sabin’s mining company in Denver was also suffering financially for many of the same reasons that the Hopkins railroad investments delayed opening of the medical school. The 1890s were volatile economic times not to be matched until The Great Depression. As such, Florence could not afford to attend medical school after graduating from Smith College in 1893 (her senior picture is shown to the left) and would have to assume financial responsibility for any future education.
As a result, Sabin came back to Denver to teach at Wolfe Hall, where her sister Mary was already working since her own graduation from Smith two years earlier. In 1895, Florence returned to Smith to teach and then received a fellowship during the summer of 1896 to work at the renowned Marine Biological Laboratories at Woods Hole on Cape Cod.
With these experiences and now-sufficient savings, Sabin was able to apply and be accepted to Johns Hopkins Medical School for the 1896-97 academic year. Exemplifying the commitment of Hopkins to training female physicians, Florence was one of 14 women in a class of 45.
Sabin book American Women of Achievement.jpgWhat follows from her remarkable career is detailed at numerous sites on the web including a 1960 National Academies Press biography, the National Library of Medicine, and the Rockefeller Archive Center. But I detail these early life influences here because they are not widely accessible outside of archives at Smith College and the Colorado Historical Society and are covered only briefly in the 1960 National Academies biography. I learned most of the preceding story from a remarkable out-of-print 1990 book from a 50-book series entitled, American Women of Achievement. Written by New York freelance writer, Janet Kronstadt, this 101-page volume on Sabin can be purchased used on Amazon for only a few dollars, roughly the same cost as shipping.
The book and websites above chronicle the rest of Sabin’s remarkable life of medical achievement and public service but I’ll provide some of the highlights as follows.

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