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Best selling author Rebecca Skloot speaks at UW School of Medicine

Rebecca Skloot signs copies of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" in Madison, WI.
Rebecca Skloot signs copies of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" in Madison, WI.
Peggy Williams

Author and science journalist Rebecca Skloot read today from her best selling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for a crowd of more than 200 enthusiastic health professionals and students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Health Sciences Learning Center.

Skloots book, detailing the story of how a young African-American woman’s cells have lived on since her death in 1951 and have been the basis for a revolution in cancer research, sits at the number two spot for hardcover nonfiction in today's New York Times.

The story is an extraordinary one. Henrietta Lacks was a 30 year old mother of five when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. She died just six months later. Unbenownst to either Henrietta or her family, her doctor at Johns Hopkins hospital had retained a portion of her biopsied tumor. He sent some of her cells to another researcher who discovered that they reproduced prolifically in the laboratory setting. Those cells – called HeLa cells – were shared with other researchers and are still alive today, growing in labs all around the world and have been used in a wide variety of cancer and other medical research over six decades. The cells have also been the center a multi-million dollar industry, none of which the Lacks family has been able to share in. In an ironic twist of fate, her family are in the position of being unable to afford health care for themselves.

Rebecca Skloot’s book intertwines three stories: the life and death of Henrietta; the story of how her cells became the basis for a revolution in medical research and are still used today (even by researchers at the University of Wisconsin); and the story of how Skloot and the family (who were reluctant to work with her in the beginning) explored Henrietta’s story together and how the family eventually came to terms with the fate of their mother’s living cancer cells. Skloot described it as “the road trip we took together.”

Skloot talked about her research and her relationship with the Lacks family in poignant terms. She read a selection from the book describing the poignant moment in which Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who never had the chance to really get to know her mother, first held a test tube containing some of her mother’s living cells. A panel discussion followed focusing on bio-ethics issues surrounding cell collection and replication. Panelists included:

  • Lisa Tiger, Outreach Specialist for the Center for Collaborative Health Equity
  • Pilar Ossorio, Associate Professor of Law and Bioethics
  • Michael Sussman, Professor of Biochemistry and Director of the UW Biotechnology Center
  • Timothy Kamp, Professor of Cardiology and Director of the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center

Skloot stressed throughout her talk and the panel discussion that the bio-ethical issues involved in the use of cell replication, whether by consent or without as was the case for Henrietta Lacks, are complicated and that she hopes her book will generate much needed discussion on the topic.

She also hopes that Henrietta’s family will get the recognition and thanks that Henrietta herself never did. For her part, Skloot has established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, a non-profit organization intended to provide scholarships to the descendents of Henrietta Lacks and to work toward providing the Lacks family aid in covering the cost of health insurance. A portion of the book’s profits go directly to the foundation, which is to open to donations from the public at large.

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