State lawmakers to honor Lacks Tuesday

By Curt Autry - bio | email
Posted by Terry Alexander - email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Tuesday at 10.m., the state legislature will honor the most famous Virginian you've probably never heard of. Her name is Henrietta Lacks. She died in 1951 of a cancerous cervical tumor; a tumor so genetically unique - its cells have lived on for 60 years, and revolutionized medicine. The problem is Henrietta's family never got to benefit from her contribution.

Author Rebecca Skloot first heard of Henrietta Lacks in a biology class when she was 16.

"My teacher said what most biology teachers say at some point which is there are these incredible cells, they've been alive since 1951 growing in laboratories around the world," Skloot said. "He wrote Henrietta Lacks in big letters on the board, and then he said she was a black woman."

Skloot wanted to know more. And what she discovered she turned into a best-selling book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks".

Lacks grew up in Clover, Virginia in Halifax Co, in the 1920s. She moved to Baltimore in the 40's with her husband, and in January 1951 was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Her treatment came at Johns Hopkins - the closest hospital that would take black patients in the early 50's. There doctors took samples of her cells without permission. Lacks died a few months later, but her cells did not.

In fact - something miraculous happened: the cells grew...something scientists had never witnessed before.

"Henrietta never knew that the cells were taken, they were taken without her knowledge, she died not knowing these cells had been grown, and no one told her kids until the early 70's, when scientists decided to track down her kids in order to do research on them to learn more about the cells," said Skloot.

A family in the dark for 20 years...unaware a part of their mother was being used for research, and profit. Today he-la cells are used in laboratories all over the world.

"They were used to create the polio vaccine; they went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity. Her cells were the first ever cloned, her genes were some of the first ever mapped. We can trace some of our most important cancer medications back to her cells the HPV vaccine the list of important advances just goes on and on and on," Skloot added.

Advancements in science, but not in the lives of the Lacks surviving children who've never made a nickel off their mother's contributions to science.

"They were the first cells ever commercialized, and now we have this multi-billion dollar industry, that's based on buying and selling cells, tissues and patent genes and it all started really with hela cells which is a very tense part of the story, because her family to this day can't afford health insurance, they're very poor," Skloot said.

Some of the proceeds from the bestselling book are going to the Lacks family, as is money from a movie on Henrietta's life currently produced by Oprah Winfrey.

NOTE: Dr. Daphne Rankin, VCU Associate Vice Provost for Instruction, will present 30 copies of Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to the community on Tuesday, March 1, at 6 p.m. at the Randolph Community Center, 1415 Grayland Avenue, Richmond.

Copyright 2011 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved.