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Rebecca Skloot to speak on the immortal Henrietta Lack

Published 1:01 am, Friday, February 5, 2010
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Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, will step up to the podium at noon today in the Westport Library McManus Room to speak about the immortal Henrietta Lack.

She will detail the stunning saga of Lacks, a poor black woman who from early on labored in the tobacco fields of Clover, Va.

Skloot teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Memphis. The book shows she is highly skilled at making the hard science between the covers clear to layman reader.

Laudatory reviews of the tome appeared Tuesday and Wednesday in the New York Times, first in the science section, then in the arts section.

After a decade investigating, Skloot hails Lacks "monumental contribution to a medical revolution." She crowns Lacks, calling her "the most important woman in medical history."

As to how such a claim can be made, it is because cells taken from the woman's cancerous cervix, "without her permission," while she was being treated over 60 years ago in the "colored ward" at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore were used to set up the first immortal human cell line.

According to Skloot, if the cells were lined up, the many trillions of cells used since then in medical research would wrap around the world three times.

The line is called HeLa. The name was concocted by taking the first two letters of Lacks' first and last name.

Born in 1920, Lacks died in 1951 and left behind five children. Skloot could not locate her grave. Skloot even goes so far as to say that the town of Clover, Va. seems to have been wiped off the map.

On the medical research front, meanwhile, the HeLa cell line has become the standard in medical research, Skloot notes.

She says the cells reproduce with "mythological intensity" and, as a result, can be used in test after test. Banks of them frozen in test tubes are in research laboratory refrigerators around the world.

In an article published in the February issue of Popular Science, the magazine gives five reasons that support Skloot's claim that Lacks is "the most important woman in medical history." (Skloot is a contributor to the magazine but is not credited for the piece.)

1. Popular Science says that before HeLa cells, scientists spent more time keeping cells alive than performing research on them. The Hela line gave them more time to devote to discovery.

2. While polio epidemics raged across the nation in 1952, Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh used the cell line to test his vaccine that, after massive field trials, was declared effective in April 1955. That set the stage for vaccinating millions with the Salk polio vaccine, freeing the nation from the staggering fear of polio, a lethal and crippling disease.

3. Work with the HeLa cell line has led to advances in cloning and in vitro fertilization.

4. Working with HeLa cells, researchers found humans have 46 chromosomes, not 48, as they originally believed. This discovery was the basis for making types of genetic diagnoses.

5. It was determined that Lack's cancerous cells used an enzyme to repair their DNA. Researchers are working on an anti-cancer drug that works against the enzyme.

While Lacks' story is deep and spans almost 60 years, Skloot attempts to sum it up concisely on her book's cover. She writes, "Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multi-million-dollar industry. More than 20 years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same."

Skloot searched for Lacks' relatives by scrounging East Baltimore in an old Honda that was missing a muffler. She found her son, who had some tough questions for researchers.

"She's the most important person in the (medical) world, and her family is living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can't we get health insurance?" Lacks' son asked.

Lacks died unaware doctors would be using her cells to advance medical science and cashing in on resulting discoveries in the process.

Skloot's investigation documents the fact that Lacks never received a dime.

While the medical community has done little to support Lacks, Skloot has attempted to help her family. According to the books dust jacket, Skloot has set up a scholarship fund for her descendants. Donations can be made at HenriettaLacksFoundation.org.