Sitting in biology class at the age of 16, Rebecca Skloot learned about HeLa cells and all the wonderful discoveries they have led to – including developing the polio vaccine, revealing mysteries of cancer and helping with advances in vitro fertilization.
When her teacher told the class that the cells came from a black woman named Henrietta Lacks, Skloot got curious. She started asking her teacher questions about Lacks and where she came from, but learned that nothing else was known about the woman whose cells have changed medical history.
In fact, Skloot later learned, the woman – who died of cervical cancer in 1951 – and her family did not even know the cells existed until the 1970s.
On Monday, Sept. 27 at 7:30 p.m. in the Mountainlair ballrooms, award-winning science writer Skloot will share the story of Henrietta Lacks with the West Virginia University community. Her presentation is part of the DeLynn Lecture Series, put on by the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center, and the 2010 David C. Hardesty Festival of Ideas lecture series.
“I realize now that my questions weren’t obvious ones for a 16-year-old to ask, but something was happening in my life that primed me to ask questions about the cells,” Skloot said.
That same year, Skloot’s father had gotten sick with an illness that no one was able to diagnose.
“I was in the middle of that experience when my teacher mentioned that Henrietta’s cells had been growing in labs decades after her death, and the first questions I asked him were, did she have any kids? How do they feel about her cells being used in research,” she said. “I think I asked those questions because I was a kid wrestling with watching my own father being a research subject.”
The lack of information available on Lacks caused Skloot to start her journey of learning about this woman and her family. It took her 10 years, but Skloot later wrote a bestselling book on Lacks, called “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
For Skloot the story of Lacks is about more than cells being taken from a woman without consent.
“It’s important for a lot of reasons, but perhaps the most central one is that we’re at a time when medical research relies more and more on biological samples like Henrietta’s cells,” Skloot said.
A lot of the ethical questions raised by Lacks’ story still haven’t been addressed today.
Lacks’ story is unusual in that her identity was eventually attached to her cells, so we know who she was. But there are human beings behind each of the billions of samples currently stored in tissue banks and research labs around the world. The majority of Americans have tissues on file being used in research somewhere, and most don’t realize it.”
More information on Skloot and the story of Henrietta Lacks is available online at http://rebeccaskloot.com .
Skloot’s presentation will be followed by a reception and book signing. It is free and open to the public.
Jean and Laurence DeLynn established the DeLynn Lecture Series in 1992 with an endowed gift to the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center. The series provides educational and informational presentations in the area of cancer research, treatment, education and prevention.
Other festival speakers will be announced in the coming months.
The David C. Hardesty Jr. Festival of Ideas is named after WVU’s former president who created the lecture series. Each year, the festival brings key figures from the fields of sports, politics, business, entertainment, research, scholarship and culture to Morgantown.
The series is supported in part by the David C. Hardesty Jr. Festival of Ideas Endowment.
For more information on the 2010-11 Festival of Ideas, visit http://festivalofideas.wvu.edu/ .
CONTACT: WVU University Relations – News
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