Henrietta Lacks may have died at the age of 30 in 1951, but her cells certainly haven’t.
HeLa cells, named after her, have been sent into space, cloned and used for developing a polio vaccine and many other scientific breakthroughs, but were taken without her knowledge during a doctor’s appointment.
Rebecca Skloot, author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” spoke about the cells’ story in the Marshall Student Center Ballroom Tuesday night for the last University Lecture Series event of the semester.
Her book, a New York Times bestseller that took her more than a decade to research and write, tells the story of Lacks, a poor Southern farmer whose cells were taken without permission and are still used in groundbreaking research in genetics, cloning and related fields.
Skloot said during the lecture that Lacks’ husband drove her to Johns Hopkins Hospital, the only option for Lacks because it was the nearest hospital at the time that would treat African-Americans.
But before she could receive treatment they had to stop at the “colored” bathroom in the “colored” ward, despite the excruciating pain she felt from a tumor she would later discover was the cervical cancer that led to her death.
However, much to the surprise of her family, they received a phone call about 20 years later from scientists wanting to test their cells because they initially wanted to see if it was the same as their mother’s. They found that Lacks’ cells duplicated at a rate they had never seen before.
“If this was fiction, nobody would have believed it,” Skloot said. “It all happened and the more I learned about the story, the more important it became to tell (the story).”
Skloot, who first heard of HeLa cells at the age of 16 in a high school biology class, contacted the family in the late ‘90s, hoping to write a book about Lacks. Yet, much to her dismay, she soon found that the road would be full of uphill battles.
“I was just one in a long line of people coming to (the kids) wanting something,” she said. “They had learned not to trust anyone.”
Skloot said racial injustices still occur today in research ethics relevant to the HeLa controversy. During the lecture, she discussed the ethical questions that spawned from the Lacks incident.
“There are still rumors today that if you’re African-American you shouldn’t be on the street, otherwise Hopkins researchers will snatch you up,” she said.
The resistance she initially met from the Lacks family was not enough to derail her from her mission – neither was a physical altercation she had with Lacks’ daughter which occurred after tensions increase due to the Lacks’ children lack of trust for others.
Skloot, who recently created the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to provide education grants to descendants of those betrayed by medical ethics like the Lacks children, said though she was one of the many who approached the children, she did not want to profit from their story.
She said they cannot afford basic health care coverage, while pharmaceutical companies have made billions of dollars off their mother’s cells.
“Many scientists I’ve heard from use the cells without realizing where the cells came from,” Skloot said.
Attending the lecture was USF President Judy Genshaft, who said she read the book beforehand.
“Rebecca Skloot is one of the best authors I’ve ever read,” she said before the lecture. “This is one of the greatest books ever.”
Skloot answered audience questions after reading excerpts from her book and signed copies, which were available for sale outside the Ballroom.