Special Report: Immortal Life

By Ursula Madden - bio | email

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - Her cancer cells helped develop the vaccine for polio, determine the effects of zero gravity on humans, and have earned scientists five Nobel Prizes.  But unless you're a scientist, you may not know about the immortal life of Henrietta Lacks.  Now, thanks to a former teacher at the University of Memphis, that's all changing.

Rebecca Skloot first heard of Henrietta Lacks in a biology class when she was 16.

"My teacher said what most biology teachers say at some point, which is there are these incredible cells," Skloot said. "They've been alive since 1951, growing in laboratories around the world, even though the woman they came from died soon after they were taken, and they were one of the most important things in medicine."

But little was known about the woman they were taken from.

"He wrote Henrietta Lacks in big letters on the board, and then he said, 'She was a black woman,'" Skloot said. " I went after him after class was over, and I was like, 'What else do we know? Who was she and did she have any kids, and what do her kids think about this?'  And he said, 'Sorry, that's it. We don't know anything.'"  

Skloot wanted to know more, and what she discovered turned into a best selling book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."

According to Skloot's research, Lacks grew up in rural Virginia in the 1920's.  She moved to Baltimore in the 40's with her husband, and in January 1951 was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Her treatment came at Johns Hopkins, the closest hospital that would take black patients at the time.  There, without permission, doctors took samples of her cells. Lacks died a few months later, but her cells did not.

In fact, they grew - something scientists had never witnessed before.

"Henrietta never knew that the cells were taken," Skloot said. "They were taken without her knowledge. She died not knowing these cells had been grown, and no one told her kids until the early 70's, when scientists decided to track down her kids in order to do research on them to learn more about the cells."

Lacks' family had been in the dark for 20 years, unaware a part of their mother was being used for research and profit.  Today, "HELA" cells are used in laboratories all over the world.

"They were used to create the polio vaccine," Skloot said. "They went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity. Her cells were the first ever cloned. Her genes were some of the first ever mapped. We can trace some of our most important cancer medications back to her cells: The HPV vaccine...the list of important advances just goes on and on."

The cells propelled advancement in science, but not in the lives of the Lacks family.

"They were the first cells ever commercialized, and now we have this multi-billion dollar industry that's based on buying and selling cells, tissues, and pattern genes, and it all started really with HELA cells, which is a very tense part of the story, because her family to this day can't afford health insurance," Skloot said. "They're very poor."

"They're wondering why, if their mother's cells were so important to medicine, they can't go to the doctor, and if people are making money off of these things - which they still do - why they can't get some of that."

Skloot is trying to help. She set up the Henrietta Lacks foundation, and part of the proceeds of her book will go to the fund.  Additionally, so will proceeds from a new HBO film, produced by Oprah Winfrey and True Blood creator Alan Ball.

"I'm a consultant on the film and so is the Lacks family," Skloot said. "So they're going to be involved as well, which was important to me when we first started talking about this, and HBO and Oprah were like, 'Absolutely, we want them involved.' There was never a question."

Skloot, who spent a decade researching and writing her book, said she worked hard to earn the trust of the Lacks children - a responsibility she doesn't take lightly.

"I didn't want to be someone who came along who benefited without doing something for them," she said. "Once they decided to trust me, they really did just let me into their lives, and they sort of took over mine, and ten years later, I finally finished the book."

It will take some time to write the script for HBO, but production should begin in about a year.

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