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Family discusses 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'
Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013
By Beverly Makhani, University College
PULLMAN, Wash. - The son and granddaughter of the woman who is the subject of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Washington State University’s Common Reading book for freshmen, will participate in a moderated discussion at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 23, in Beasley Coliseum. It is free to the public. A book signing will follow on the Beasley concourse.
Lacks’ cells have been used over the past 60-plus years in countless scientific pursuits worldwide. "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot, describes how cells were taken without her permission and became the first immortal cell line when they reproduced successfully and rapidly.
Named "HeLa” cells—derived from the first two letters of her names—they were used in the development of vaccines, cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization. They were sent on space missions to test how cells react to zero gravity.
Lacks died at 31 of cervical cancer in Baltimore in 1951. That HeLa cells came from her wasn’t made public until the 1970s. Her family discovered that vials of Henrietta Lacks’ cells had become the first human biological materials ever bought and sold as part of a multi-billion-dollar industry.
In her book, Skloot explores the family’s story. Some profits from the book go to a foundation to support families and victims of medical ethics violations. The Lacks family has never benefited from the commercialization of HeLa cells.
"The book raises topics that have inspired countless discussions among students and faculty here at WSU, both in first-year classes and in programming beyond them,” said Karen Weathermon, co-director of the Common Reading Program at WSU. "We are excited to learn more about Henrietta Lacks from her son and his daughter.”
Moderators for the evening are Mary Sanchez Lanier (associate dean of the University College and director of pre-health and STEM education) and Marc Robinson (instructor in critical culture, gender and race studies and Office of Equity and Diversity organizer of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration).
David "Sonny” Lacks has visited university campuses and libraries across the country talking to audiences about his mother’s important contributions to science. By sharing what it was like to find out about her immortal cells, he brings a personal perspective to big issues such as medical experimentation on African Americans, bioethics, legal battles over informed consent and whether we control what comes from our bodies and any profits made from it. He will discuss how the experience changed the Lacks family forever.
Jeri Lacks-Whye has traveled with her father on dozens of visits, adding her own perspective on the legacy of her grandmother, the family and HeLa cells. She works for the judiciary system in Baltimore in the domestic violence unit. She is one of the Lacks family members who will be a consultant in the much-anticipated HBO movie produced by Oprah Winfrey and Allan Ball based on "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
The event is the sixth annual Common Reading Invited Lecture. For more information, visit http://CommonReading.wsu.edu.