>• After Henrietta Lacks succumbed to cervical cancer in 1951, scientists used her cells to launch a medical revolution. In a new book, Rebecca Skloot maps the toll on her unsuspecting family.
WHO WAS HENRIETTA LACKS?
She was a poor black woman whose cancer cells grew astonishingly quickly. After her death they were used to create an immortal cell line, called HeLa, for research. These cells were used to develop the polio vaccine; they went up into space; they were the first cells ever cloned. Meanwhile her family was living with no money, no health insurance.
HOW DID THEY FIND OUT?
In the ’70s researchers wanted to understand HeLa cells, so they tracked down the family. Henrietta’s husband had a third-grade education. He thought they had part of his wife alive in a laboratory, they’d been doing tests, and now they wanted to test his kids for cancer. He didn’t understand.
WHAT WAS THE IDEA BEHIND YOUR BOOK?
I wanted to tell the story of this woman who unknowingly was one of the most important women in history, and her family were among the only people who didn’t benefit. One of her sons had quadruple bypass surgery: As he went under, the doctor was thanking him for all that his mother’s cells had done; he woke up $150,000 in debt.
WILL YOUR BOOK HELP THEM?
I hope so. I just launched a foundation: hen riettalacksfoundation.org to provide scholarship and health insurance money for her descendants.