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Author traces personal journey in uncovering HeLa cell origin

<p>Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer whose cancer cells mysteriously reproduced in cultures and later led to life-saving vaccinations. Students in the School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program and Douglass Residential College read her book over the summer.</p>

Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer whose cancer cells mysteriously reproduced in cultures and later led to life-saving vaccinations. Students in the School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program and Douglass Residential College read her book over the summer.


A poor black woman’s battle with cancer and the life-saving cells that came from her body inspired award-winning author Rebecca Skloot to write “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

Students and faculty crowded into the College Avenue Gym last night to hear Skloot talk about her book, which explores the evolution of HeLa cells as well as gender, race, ethics, history and religion.

Sponsored by the Associate Alumnae of Douglass College, the School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program and Douglass Residential College, the event represented a culmination of the discourse surrounding the book, said Karen Dentler, an assistant dean in the honors program.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was assigned as the summer reading for new Douglass Residential College students and honors program students, she said.

When Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer, was hospitalized with cancer in 1951, doctors removed cells from her cervix without her knowledge. Since then, those cells have been used to develop medical treatments such as the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization and chemotherapy.

Skloot said HeLa cells have been cloned, tested in zero gravity on a space mission and used to create vaccines for human papillomavirus and polio — just a small sampling of the endless instances in which Lacks’ cells were used.

One scientist estimated that the weight of all the cells derived from Lack’s cancer cells today would total 50 million metric tons, she said.

Despite the prominence of these “HeLa” cells in medical research, Lacks herself remained anonymous while her family struggled to afford health insurance to cover cancer treatment, according to Skloot’s website.

Skloot’s fascination with Lacks began in 1998 when her biology teacher mentioned HeLa cells, named after Henrietta Lacks — but the teacher only knew she was an African American patient. Mention of this enigmatic figure immediately sparked Skloot’s curiosity.

“When I first learned about HeLa, it all changed for me,” she said. “There was something special about Henrietta and her cancer but no one ever went to figure out why.”

Skloot said she began to seek contact with the Lacks’ family to write an essay on the origin of HeLa cells. Unexpectedly, her curiosity spurred a full-blown investigation into the members of the Lacks’ family. Skloot became close with Lacks’ daughter Deborah and the rest of the family.

“We hang out, we barbeque, we travel,” she said. “I’m no longer the reporter in their lives.”

Skloot said late in her education, while she was filling out her veterinary school applications, a professor suggested she consider science writing as a career.

“I just did a U-turn at the very end of my schooling, and I signed up for a creative writing program,” she said.

This sudden shift in her life’s trajectory proved inspirational to Chelsea Julius, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore.

“I thought it was amazing that one moment … could change their life so profoundly … her biology teacher’s comment about Henrietta Lacks changed hers,” Julius said. “It definitely fuels my desire to be a teacher.”

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” took the author more than a decade to write, said Francis Barchi, the University president’s wife.

It has gone on to win many awards, sell 1 million copies, and is set to be made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey in the fall, Barchi said.

“Ms. Skloot has also started the Henrietta Lacks Fund which provides education, health and emergency support to the Lacks family,” she said.

Alina Rashid, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, said it is clear Skloot has a true appreciation for the Lacks’ family and medical history.

“She seemed to genuinely care about Henrietta Lacks and her story,” Rashid said.

Skloot said she was surprised and amazed at how much of a success her book became.

“This whole thing has been such a whirlwind,” she said. “You can never know what will happen with publishing ... it never ceases to amaze me when I show up to a school and so many people have read it.”

Skloot said she looks forward to finishing her second book, which focuses on her lifelong interest with animals in science and the corresponding ethics.

“Follow your curiosity. Recognize your ‘what moments’ — the things that make you stop in your tracks,” she said. “The other thing is to recognize your passions. And that’s not just for writing but any profession.”

— Kristen Baresich contributed to this story.


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