HeLa cells — the focus of journalist Rebecca Skloot’s new book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” — are a strain of cells that aid science research from high school biology classes to Kline Biology Tower and that are continuously multiplying. Their sale is a multimillion-dollar industry, and they are vital to the medical industry, having contributed to research on subjects ranging from the Polio vaccine to drugs for Parkinson’s.
Skloot promoted her book, which tells the story of the woman whose tissue created HeLa cells, to an audience of about 60 students and faculty at a Morse College Master’s Tea on Monday. Skloot discussed the 10-year process of writing the book, noted the importance of science writing in facilitating conversation between scientists and the general public and talked about the phenomenon of saving human genetic material.
“Most people have their tissues on file for research and don’t even realize,” Skloot said. “Particularly everyone born in the U.S. after 1960, when genetic testing was mandated by law.”
Harvested without consent from Lacks, a black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951, the HeLa cell line rapidly multiplied and now supplies human samples for tens of thousands of studies. Skloot noted that not everyone’s cells behave like HeLa cells. Scientists do not know why HeLa cells have continued to multiply since they were harvested from Lacks’s cervix in 1951, but this abundance has given researchers access to human cells for decades.
Skloot first heard of HeLa cells as a 16-year-old in biology class and became obsessed, she said.
She said her book details her quest to uncover the fate of Lacks’s family and to understand the woman behind the cells. Skloot spent 10 years with the Lacks family, learning about their lives and the life of their mother. While she conducted research, she also became a contributor to Popular Science, NPR and The New York Times Magazine, as well as a creative writing teacher at the University of Memphis.
She developed a close relationship with Lacks’s daughter, Deborah, and some of her grandchildren. In fact, Skloot started the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to help provide health care and college educations for the descendents of Lacks, who have received none of the money generated by their grandmother’s cells. Skloot will donate a portion of her proceeds from book sales to the foundation, she said.
Skloot’s talk at Yale was just one stop on a self-organized tour of the nation, said Carl Zimmer, a journalist teaching a science-writing course at Yale this semester who proposed Skloot’s visit.
“She reached out to everyone she knew,” Zimmer said. “And I said, ‘I’ll help with New Haven.’ ”
Skloot emphasized her personal growth as a writer and a researcher throughout the course of the project. She said she was surprised to find that her notes from the beginning of the research process were badly done, resembling the notes of one of her untrained writing students. Fred Strebeigh ’74, a senior lecturer in the departments of English and Environmental Studies, said Skloot serves as a good example for aspiring writers.
“For students here who are thinking about doing nonfiction writing, [the Tea] was a perfect revelation about the advantages of creating for yourself a challenge that is beyond anything you expected,” Strebeigh said. “She was totally committed to the project.”
All four Yale undergraduates interviewed said they were eager to read Skloot’s book after she read passages aloud during the Tea.
“It’s really such an interesting topic — it’s something you could pass over in your biology textbook easily, but it raises so many issues,” Kaitlin McLean ’13 said.
Jordan Rogers ’12 said he enjoyed Skloot’s handling of issues of race.
“It’s interesting to me how humanity, love and communication come into interaction with medicine, and her book is an example of that,” Rogers said.