Past Event

Immortal Life: The Promises and Perils of Biobanking and the Genetic Archive

September 28, 2017
5:30 PM - 7:30 PM
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Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, 427 Chestnut St, Philadelphia

Modern collection and storage of biological samples make possible a kind of “immortality” for anyone who has ever had a saliva sample frozen for genealogical testing or a blood sample stored in medical collections. New technologies, like CRISPR for gene editing, expand possible future uses of biological materials stored around the world. The story of Henrietta Lacks, popularized in a book by Rebecca Skloot and an HBO special starring Oprah Winfrey, illustrates the ways that a single person’s cells and tissues can take on lives of their own as research material. In 1953, just before her death, Lacks’s cancer cells yielded the oldest and most common human cell line still used in research.

There has been significant public interest in her remarkable story, but the “immortality” of people like Henrietta Lacks raises pressing questions for all of us. Who owns and controls bodily materials extracted from research subjects and patients? Who can profit from the cells and genes that make us who we are? How do we weigh the value of personal privacy and an individual’s sense of self against the potential for medical progress? How do imbalances of wealth and power influence questions of consent, exploitation, and identity for people who provide biological materials?

Join us for a lively discussion with three scholars whose work has explored the history and contemporary issues surrounding the immortal lives of our cells, tissues, and other biological materials.

This event is free and open to the public.

Support for this program has been generously provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts.


Susan Lindee is Janice and Julian Bers Professor of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Chair of the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine. Her work explores historical and contemporary questions raised by genetics, nuclear weapons and radiation risk. Her books include Suffering Made RealThe DNA Mystique, and Moments of Truth in Genetic Medicine.

Projit Bihari Mukharji is Associate Professor of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. His books include Nationalizing the Body and Doctoring Traditions. His work focuses on issues of marginality and marginalization both within and through science. His current research is on the history of human difference and race in 20th century South Asia, and how the politics of race, indigeneity and biocolonialism have influenced history.

Joanna Radin is Assistant Professor of the History of Medicine at Yale University. Her 2017 book, Life on Ice: A History of New Uses for Cold Blood, explores these issues and how indigenous activism around the preservation of blood provides new ways to consider their ethical dimensions. She is interested in the history of forward-looking projects in biomedicine, ecology, and anthropology in the 20th century and the politics of preservation and re-use. Her current research is investigating the ways that science fiction has shaped ideas about the future of biomedicine.