Monday, February 1, 2010

Henrietta Lacks: Unsung Pioneer of Medicine Now in the Spotlight

The name Henrietta Lacks may not be familiar to many laypeople (yet), but it's well known to scientists and doctors all over the world. The twist is that Lacks was not a researcher, but a patient.

A poor black woman diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951, Lacks was treated for the disease and her cancer cells were harvested without her knowledge or permission. It turns out these cells, nicknamed HeLa, were the first "immortal" cells: constantly reproducing from 1951 until today. And HeLa cells have been used by researchers over the last half-century to develop breakthroughs in polio, cancer, and many other diseases.

The amazing story of Henrietta Lacks is detail in the the acclaimed new book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by award-winning science writer Rebecca Skloot. (In a series of remarkable coincidences, this book about the ever-reproducing HeLa cells will be published February 2nd - Groundhog Day - and Skloot begins her tour to promote the book, which she's dubbed "The Immortal Book Tour," today, February 1st: the start of Black History Month.)

The last point is important because Skloot's book isn't just a science story but a personal story of Lacks (who died in 1951) and her family, who for more than 20 years didn't know of Henrietta's role in medical advances. (To this day, the family that has given so much to science has never been paid a dime, even though HeLa cells are sold to scientists and researchers for hefty sums.)

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" has gained a lot of early praise from everyone from scientists and professors to book reviewers from the Chicago Tribune, Forbes, and other media to fellow nonfiction writers such as Susan Orlean.

Skloot was featured in a story on Henrietta Lacks on ABC's World News Sunday on January 31st.

More on the book:
You can find a selection of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" reviews here.

Wired magazine created a chart detailing the remarkable contributions Henrietta Lacks has made to science.

Oprah Winfrey's "O" magazine published a 5,000-word excerpt of Skloot's book; you can read it here.

No comments: