The crowd was full to overflowing at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum last night (April 3). They all came to hear author Rebecca Skloot talk about her debut book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which has been a runaway bestseller on the New York Times bestseller list for more than three years since its publication.
Skloot’s nonfiction story tells the tale of Henrietta Lacks, a poor, uneducated African-American tobacco farmer from southern Virginia who in 1951 when she was 30 years old checked into Johns Hopkins Hospital and was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. Lacks soon died of the disease but not before a doctor snipped cells from her tumor – without informing Lacks – and put them in a petri dish.
In what was practically a medical miracle and totally unprecedented, doctors found that Lacks’ cells could not only be kept alive but would also multiply exponentially and indefinitely.
According to Ms. Skloot, for half a century biotechnology companies and scientists have used these astonishingly resilient cancer cells to develop countless medical breakthroughs and establish a multi-million dollar industry. The HeLa cell line (named for Lacks), the first human cells to both grow outside the body and to be commercialized, have been used in more than 60,000 experiments and have played a major part in some of the world’s most important medical advances, from polio vaccines to in vitro fertilization.
Although Rebecca Lacks’ cells have generated millions in profits for the medical researchers who patented her tissue, Lacks’ family didn’t know the cell cultures existed until they were approached decades later by scientists to donate their own cell samples for gene research.
This engrossing story – and the many ethical questions raised by it – was the theme of Ms. Skloot’s presentation at the Ath which despite the gravitas of the subject matter, she leavened with some unexpected humor.
Skloot, who spent 11 years researching and writing the book said she is immensely proud that so many people have read the book, including many students. “I know so many writers who have spent as long as I have or longer writing a book that they hope, at most, maybe their parents and friends will read,” she said. “I just feel so very fortunate that so many are reading it and talking about it in schools. It’s a dream come true for me and for the Lacks family.”
According to Skloot, a HeLa “greatest hits” list of advances for which Lacks’ immortal human cell line contributed is long and illustrious.
“They were used in a polio vaccine and were sent into space during the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity,” Skloot said. “They were the first cells ever cloned; the first genes ever mapped. The HPD vaccine was developed thanks to Henrietta’s cells … the list just goes on and on.”
Scientists were soon manufacturing, in giant industrial-sized vats, HeLa cells to the tune of six trillion per week!
“The volume of cells that grew from that tiny initial sample is inconceivable,” Skloot said. “One scientist estimated that if you could have saved them all, and put them on a scale, by now they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons – more than 150 Empire State Buildings. And that’s when you consider that the cells themselves weigh almost nothing. It’s mind-boggling.”
Skloot said she first learned about HeLa cells when she was 16 in a basic biology class and was challenged by her teacher to research who Henrietta Lacks was since very little was known about her or her family at that time.
“He said I could write up a paper and get some extra credit,” she said. “Well, that paper took 11 years of my life and ended up being a book.”
Skloot said the biology class was taught at a community college and she was there because she had failed biology in high school. “My father is fond of pointing out to people that the first time I had been kicked out of school was in preschool,” Skloot said. “And it never got much better from there.”
Her detour from veterinary school into science writing was a direct result of Skloot’s obsession with the life of Henrietta Lacks. “It was a lightbulb moment for me,” Skloot said. “Letting go of a goal doesn’t mean you failed, as long as you have a new one to put into its place. It’s not giving up, it’s just changing directions which can be one of the most important things you do in life.”
In graduate school, Skloot said she planned her thesis to address 13 stories of forgotten women in science with Lacks at the top of the list. That’s when, Skloot said, she first met Lacks’ daughter Debra and soon after the whole family and learned the deeper story which eventually became the book – now translated into 25 languages.
For students on any kind of track, Skloot had a special word of advice.
“Everything I have done in my career can be traced back to a ‘what?’ moment,” she said. “That moment that makes you stop and question. The moment when my teacher told me about Henrietta being possibly a black woman and that we didn’t know anything else about her. What? Look for them and pay attention to them because you never know where they are going to lead you.”