Apr 052010
Authors: Ryan Sheine

Rebecca Skloot returned to campus Monday to speak about her best-selling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” More than a decade earlier, she had attended classes for her biology major in that same room, Engineering Building room 100.

Skloot originally came to CSU for the university’s veterinary program. She was later inspired to pursue her passion for writing by English professor John Calderazzo.

“Writers like Rebecca Skloot are needed more than ever,” Calderazzo said to more than 100 people who turned out for her book reading and signing. “Not to mention she’s written a great book.”

Skloot first learned about the story of Henrietta Lacks in a biology class when she was 16.

Skloot never forgot the name her biology teacher wrote on the board –– “Henrietta Lacks” –– the source and namesake of the famous HeLa cells that, when stored in stable conditions, do not die.

The HeLa cells descended from a tumor in Lacks’s cervix described by her doctor as “an eroded hard mass about the size of a nickel,” when the sample was first taken.

HeLa cells led to the discovery of the polio vaccine and have contributed to extensive research of cancer, AIDS and radiation side effects.

After her biology class when she first heard about the cells, Skloot pressed her teacher for more details about Henrietta Lacks. He told her to research the topic on her own and turn in an extra-credit assignment about the topic.

In one of Calderazzo’s writing workshops, years later, Skloot was assigned a free-writing exercise about something forgotten. She titled her exercise, “The world forgot about Henrietta Lacks.”

In 1999, while a creative writing graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, Skloot decided to research further the story of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells.

It didn’t take long for Skloot to have trouble with the research in her story. After years of mistreatment caused by their medical ignorance and willingness to talk, the Lacks family had developed tight lips when confronted by media.

Just before Skloot approached the Lacks family for her research, Henrietta’s medical records were released to the press and subsequently published.

“I was another person coming along with something to benefit, but it didn’t benefit them,” Skloot said. “(Henrietta’s daughter) had good reason not to trust me.”

Henrietta’s cells were taken without her permission, which was not yet illegal in 1951, and the cells were harvested and grown for a profit within the medical community. The Lacks family never knew that Henrietta’s cells were still living in laboratory freezers.

“In 1951, we didn’t even have the term ‘informed consent’,” Skloot said.

In her book, Skloot said she strived to address the various ethical issues raised by the treatment of Lacks.

“Who should profit from these kinds of advances in science?” she asked the crowd, adding that while the Lacks family had missed out on the monetary gains from Henrietta’s cells, humanity as a whole continues to benefit from the resulting advances in tissue research.

William Wherry, a graduate student, said Skloot “seems very humble and willing to separate herself as a writer from what is really the family’s story.”

“To appreciate the story you have to follow the family, but to understand the burden of the family’s legacy you have to understand the science,” he said.

Staff writer Ryan Sheine can be reached at news@collegian.com.

 Posted by at 5:38 pm

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