Rebecca Skloot delves into ‘cells that never died’ in ethics series


By Chris Palmer

In front of a packed house of about 600 people at University of San Diego’s Shiley Theater on Wednesday, award-winning science writer Rebecca Skloot discussed her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which details the untold story of one of the most important contributions to medical science in the past century.

The widely acclaimed book, Skloot’s first, was named to dozens of “Best of” lists in 2010. It has won numerous awards, including the Wellcome Trust Book Prize and the Heartland Prize and will soon be adapted for an HBO movie. The book explores the true story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor, black tobacco farmer and cervical cancer patient, whose cells — taken without her knowledge or consent in 1951 — were cultured and used to produce an ‘immortal’ human cell line for research purposes. Officially known as ‘HeLa’ cells, the cells have been instrumental in studying cancer, polio, radiation sickness, gene mapping, cloning and a variety of other areas.

“Scientists all around the world had been trying to grow cells outside of the human body for decades, and it never worked. Nobody knows exactly why, but Henrietta’s cells just never died,” said Skloot of the miraculous HeLa cells, which she had become obsessed with upon learning about them in high school.

Skloot read a handful of passages from her book, interspersed with details, including those about:

• The story’s historical background — Black people were routinely used as experimental medical subjects without their consent;

• her experience working with members of Lacks’ family to bring the story to light — most of the family was uneducated and had a profound distrust of scientists and doctors,

• her reflections on the writing process — it took her 10 years to research and write the book.

Skloot then engaged the audience in an hour-long Q & A session that touched on, among several topics, her close, occasionally intense, emotional connection to the story, the positive response of the Lacks family and the scientific and medical communities to the book, and the historical and present-day ethical and legal issues surrounding patient consent.

Skloot’s talk was moved from its original venue at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center to the larger capacity Shiley Theater to accommodate the high demand to attend the event, which concluded with a book signing by the author. An estimated 600 people who were not able to attend in person viewed a live video stream of the event at one of four sites in San Diego.

Wednesday’s event was the third in a series of nine “Exploring Ethics” forums hosted by The Center for Ethics in Science and Technology, in partnership with San Diego’s “The Henrietta Lacks Project”, devoted to discussions of medical research ethics and diversity issues related to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

The remaining six forums will take place on the first Wednesday of each month through May 2012 at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. Professors of biology, anthropology, medicine, religion, law and ethics from several San Diego area colleges and universities will moderate the forums.

All of the participating institutions (including UCSD, SDSU, USD, Point Loma University, CSU San Marcos, and Grossmont College) are planning multiple satellite events tied into the themes of the book ranging from art projects and theatrical productions to science fairs and reading groups.

For more on the Exploring Ethics series go to