It was in a Portland Community College Biology class that Rebecca Skloot first heard the name Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was a poor, black tobacco farmer who developed a tumor in her cervix that ended up killing her, but that also revolutionized the world of science. The cancer cells from Lacks’s body were immortal — meaning they would replicate on and on without end — so they could be used to study cellular diseases. Scientists called them HeLa cells after the woman they came from. These cells have been used to help deepen our understanding of genetics and genetic diseases such as polio, AIDS, and cancer.
However, the cells were taken from Lacks’s body without permission. And as they went on to help revolutionize treatments for many chronic conditions, her own relatives languished in poverty, without health insurance.
Her Radiolab segment has interviews with many of the relatives of Henrietta Lacks and the scientists who developed the HeLa cell line.
Rebecca Skloot was born in Springfield, IL, but her family moved to the Northwest when she was 10. She spent her teenage years briefly attending Lincoln High School, before dropping out after her freshman year. She wound up at the Metropolitan Learning Center, an alternative high school. She also took some classes at Portland Community College.
Have you read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? What questions do you have for Rebecca Skloot?