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PODCAST: Rebecca Skloot on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [MP3]

The advancement of modern medicine owes a great deal to a sharp pelvic pain felt by a Southern black woman in 1951. This pang, followed by a self-examination in a bathtub and a trip to Johns Hopkins, was ultimately diagnosed as cervical cancer. “I got a knot on my womb,” the patient had told her doctor, who scraped cells from the tumor for further analysis. It was an ordinary procedure.

The woman’s cancerous cells, however, were far from ordinary – they were part of the first immortal cell line, their number doubling every 24 hours and filling up countless little petri dishes. More than a half-century later, trillions upon trillions of these microscopic wonders – “HeLa” cells -- live in labs around the world, where they’ve been used to research AIDS, cancer and gene mapping. They've partaken in endless scientific quests as the first cells ever cloned and the first to be sent up in space.

Still, the story of the human source of world’s most famous cells – the late Henrietta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer and mother of five – was told only sloppily or incompletely (even to the Lacks family) until it was picked up by science journalist Rebecca Skloot in the late 1990’s. Skloot pieced together the puzzle of the HeLa cells and the woman from whence they came, exploring the background and ethical implications of one of medicine’s most momentous accidents. Now Lacks, who was never even informed that her cells had been taken and used for research (she died eight months after the initial trip to Hopkins), has got her life’s story on the  New York Times’s bestselling nonfiction list in the form of Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Skloot read from the book, her first published, at the Harvard Bookstore, giving audience members a basic framework of how she Lacks’s family members collectively came to understand the story of the HeLa cells.

“When I came along, still no one had told them [her family] what a cell was,” Skloot said. “Most scientists haven’t even wondered where they [the HeLa cells] came from.” For the children of Lacks, who are still struggling financially and have received no compensation for the prolonged scientific use of their late mother’s cells  , the cell saga bears a lot of weight, both personally and ethically. Skloot explained that for Deborah, Lacks’s daughter, it was initially a spiritual question of whether or not her mother’s soul still lived in the cells. For her sons, it was a question of financial compensation -- without health insurance to pay for their own expensive medical procedures, they've naturally felt gypped out of some of the profit that the medical world has earned using their mother's cells.

It’s probably pretty easy to convincingly paint a picture of the exploitive doctors   versus the unsuspecting and impoverished patient to a room full of Cantabrigians, but Skloot has been forceful in her recognition of the many edges of the HeLa sword. She explained to her audience that she doesn’t want readers to come away from the story with a soured view of cell research, and that, in the era during which Lacks’s cells were taken, the issue of property rights never crossed anyone’s mind; the researchers broke no laws.

The depth and breadth of the moral complications of the HeLa story has resulted in conflicted response from readers, Skloot said. But she’s not trying to drag anyone around a circular ethical debate or sway readers to one side or the other – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is, first and foremost, a narrative.

“In a lot of ways, it’s a story about losing a parent,” Skloot said.

 

DOWNLOAD: Rebecca Skloot on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [MP3]

Recorded live at the Harvard Book Store on February 10, 2010; if you enjoyed this reading, check out the HBS's schedule of upcoming events. To subscribe to our podcast, paste this RSS feed into your podcatcher or feed-reader of choice, or bookmark http://thephoenix.com/podcast.

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