Science journalist Rebecca Skloot to speak on 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'
Skloot will be joined by two members of the Lacks family to tell the story of the Black cancer patient whose cells revolutionized medical research but raise troubling questions about bias and consent.
She was born Loretta Pleasant. For most of her life, she was known as Henrietta Lacks. Since the 1950s, generations of cell biologists have known her — mostly without being aware of it — as HeLa, the nickname for the line of cells that inaugurated a new era in medical research.
The medical odyssey that made Lacks’ cells a cornerstone of modern medicine, chronicled in Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 bestseller "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," is a stunning object lesson in informed consent and bioethics and a sobering chapter in the long, shameful history of racial inequity and exploitation in medicine.
On April 11, Skloot, along with Shirley Lacks and Jeri Lacks Whye, will tell Lacks’ story and explore the troubling historical and ethical questions woven through it in a lecture on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus.
The talk, part of the Hugh and Ethel Kelly Lecture Series, will take place at 2 p.m. in the Haymarket Theatre at Squires Student Center. Hosted by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science in partnership with the College of Engineering, the event is free and open to the public but registration is requested.
The series of events that put Lacks at the center of a revolution in medical research began in 1951, when the Black mother of five sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital for what turned out to be an aggressive cervical cancer. During the course of her treatment, doctors collected cells from her tumor and passed them along to a Johns Hopkins researcher wrestling with the challenge then consuming the medical community: growing human cells outside the human body.
Lab-grown cells would allow researchers to perform experiments and test treatments without endangering human patients. But until the cells from Lacks’ tumor showed up, no sample had ever survived for longer than a few days.
Lacks’ cells were different. They doubled their population every 24 hours in an apparently inexhaustible supply of identical copies. Lacks died in August 1951, but her cells — which she didn’t know were being cultured and hadn’t given researchers consent to use — divided over and over again in the laboratory, becoming the first “immortalized” human cell line.
This unlimited supply of cells transformed medical research. The vaccine for polio was developed through experiments conducted on HeLa cells. Researchers have relied on them to study diseases, including measles mumps, HIV, and ebola, and to develop treatments for cancers and viruses. HeLa cells were the first to be cloned and the first to be sent to space. They provided the backdrop for fundamental discoveries in genetics and other aspects of cell biology.
All of this was done without consulting, or even informing, Lacks' family, who only became aware that the cell line existed in the 1970s when they began receiving requests from researchers for blood samples. As part of the massive scientific and profit-making enterprise that was by then operating around HeLa cells, members of the family were used in research — again, without their consent — and their medical records shared.
It wasn’t until Skloot began the reporting that ultimately became "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" that the Lacks family became aware of the magnitude of Henrietta’s transformative contributions to medicine — and the lucrative biotech enterprise that fueled this research bonanza. Lacks' biological material had allowed companies to rake in massive profits selling HeLa cells by the trillions, but her descendants — who shared the same biological material — hadn't received any of that windfall.
Skloot used some of the book’s proceeds to establish The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which has helped support some of the family’s expenses. Some biotech companies have since contributed to this fund. But the ongoing debate over the responsible approach to Lacks’ legacy highlights the necessity of continuing to wrestle with these issues.
Sloot’s work, which covers topics from food politics to the intersection of race and medicine, has been featured in The New York Times and on National Public Radio, CBS Sunday Morning, the podcast "Radiolab," and numerous other outlets.
She has been recognized with awards from organizations including the National Academies of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Wellcome Trust.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science and a master’s degree in creative nonfiction.
The Hugh and Ethel Kelly Lecture Series is made possible by a fund from the estate of Ethel Kelly, who generously supported Virginia Tech and the College of Engineering in honor of her husband, Hugh. Hugh Kelly earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the university and went on to play key roles in multiple groundbreaking projects over a long career at Bell Laboratories.
To honor Hugh Kelly’s technical accomplishments and the couple’s support of Virginia Tech, the College of Engineering and the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science established the lecture series and renamed the institute's headquarters building Kelly Hall in 2013. The Kellys’ generosity has allowed the institute to bring Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, and other visionary leaders and thinkers to Blacksburg to share their work with the Virginia Tech community.