When Henrietta Lacks, a poor farmer in the South, went in for a doctor’s appointment in the early 1950’s, she didn’t know that some cells from her cancerous tumor were taken and frozen, much less that they would lead to scientific discoveries, technological advances and become the subject of a book.
Rebecca Skloot, the author of that book – the New York Times’ bestseller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” – is speaking at USF today on Lacks’ legacy.
Skloot will speak at the last University Lecture Series (ULS) event of the semester about the 10 year process of investigating the ethical questions that spanned the subjects of medicine and the treatment of minorites.
The cells that were taken from Lacks, known as HeLa cells, have since been duplicated and used in research for cloning, vaccinations, genetics and injecting reproductive cells.
On her website, Skloot said the impact of HeLa cells on the medical community is immeasurable.
“I’ve spoken about HeLa at schools around the country, where students are transfixed by the story,” she said on her website. “I tell them that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown on a scale they would weigh more than 100 Empire State buildings.”
Nicole Kummer, ULS program director, said because of ethical debates around it, Lacks’ story is relevant to more than just those interested in medicine.
“This is a topic that reaches many students, not just medical students, but students concerned with ethics and minority rights as well,” she said.
Lacks’ family lived in poverty as did many other black farmers in the South – a subject that Skloot will discuss at her lecture.
Kummer said Skloot’s book has raised awareness on many issues surrounding the historical context of the time, including the ethics of the health care profession and race relations.
Kristie Gerber, director of Student Activities, said Skloot’s lecture, which cost ULS $18,300, was one that would appeal to a different sort of audience than the typical lecture.
“We were trying to pull a crowd that the medical school might be more excited about than some of the other events this year,” she said. “She’s someone of relevance and a hot topic right now.”
Skloot said on her website that Lacks’ story “captures the imagination of students in any number of disciplines, including the sciences, medicine, African-American studies, sociology, philosophy, law, bioethics, journalism and creative writing.”
“I think her message and the research that she’s doing, with us being a Research One institution (and) her disclosing how those cells are being used, is something that (I think would be beneficial for students),” Gerber said. “I hope our students learn to look at the big picture of medicine.”
The event will begin at 7 p.m. in the Marshall Student Center Ballroom. After the lecture, Skloot will autograph her book which can be purchased at the event.