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Book Gives Voice to Experimentation on African-Americans

Author Rebecca Skloot

Author Rebecca Skloot will share the story of the person she calls “the most important woman in medical history” at North Carolina Central University on Tuesday, March 23, at 3 p.m., in the Biomedical Biotechnology Research Institute (BBRI) auditorium, at 3 p.m. Skloot’s best-selling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is the story of a rural Virginia tobacco farmer whose aggressive cervical cancer gave rise to the first human-tumor cell line used in research, HeLa cells.

These HeLa cells — the name taken from Lacks’ first and last name — were removed during a biopsy before Lacks’ death in 1951 and cultured without her permission at Johns Hopkins University. They were the first human cells ever cultured in a laboratory, and they reproduced vigorously. Although HeLa cells gave birth to the multimillion-dollar human biological materials industry, Lacks’ family has never seen any of the profits. The cells were instrumental in developing the polio vaccine and in many advances and discoveries involving cancer, viruses, in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping. The cells were shot into space to determine the effect of zero gravity, and they continue to be used in research today.

Skloot is a tissue research expert and writing professor at the University of Memphis. Her book, based in part on extensive interviews with the Lacks family over 10 years, tells the story they have always wanted the world to know about their matriarch and her contributions to science. The book debuted in February at No. 5 on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list and was named a Barnes and Nobles Discover Great New Writers selection for spring 2010.

Skloot is also president of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which provides scholarships to African-Americans pursuing studies in science and medicine and financial aid to Henrietta Lacks’ descendants to cover the cost of their health insurance. The foundation seeks contributions from those who have benefited from HeLa cells — including scientists, universities, corporations, and the general public — to show thanks to Lacks and her family.

Pharmaceutical Sciences Professor David Kroll, who was instrumental in bringing Skloot to NCCU, hopes to bring clarity to the little-known story of Lacks. “This is not just about science,” Kroll said. “It is the story of one woman’s immersion in Southern culture and African-American history. The story appeals to all. It covers science, African-American culture and religion, intellectual property of human tissues, Southern history, medical ethics, civil rights, and the overselling of medical advances.” Dr. Kroll serves on the Board of Directors of the Lacks Foundation.

Blair Kelley, a women's history professor at N.C. State University, and Kroll will also speak. A book signing will conclude the event, which is sponsored by BBRI, Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE) and the College of Science and Technology.

Published: Thursday, March 18, 2010
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NCCU complies with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in all programs and activities (including sexual harassment and sexual violence) in the University's educational programs and activities. For additional resources or to file a Title IX complaint, visit the NCCU's Title IX webpage.
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