7/14/2010

Rebecca Skloot first heard of Henrietta Lacks in a biology class when she was 16.

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - Her cancer cells helped develop the vaccine for polio, determine the effects of zero gravity on humans, and have earned scientists five Nobel Prizes.  But unless you're a scientist, you may not know about the immortal life of Henrietta Lacks.  Now, thanks to a former teacher at the University of Memphis, that's all changing.

Rebecca Skloot first heard of Henrietta Lacks in a biology class when she was 16.

"My teacher said what most biology teachers say at some point, which is there are these incredible cells," Skloot said. "They've been alive since 1951, growing in laboratories around the world, even though the woman they came from died soon after they were taken, and they were one of the most important things in medicine."

But little was known about the woman they were taken from.

"He wrote Henrietta Lacks in big letters on the board, and then he said, 'She was a black woman,'" Skloot said. " I went after him after class was over, and I was like, 'What else do we know? Who was she and did she have any kids, and what do her kids think about this?'  And he said, 'Sorry, that's it. We don't know anything.'"  

Skloot wanted to know more, and what she discovered turned into a best selling book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."

According to Skloot's research, Lacks grew up in rural Virginia in the 1920's.  She moved to Baltimore in the 40's with her husband, and in January 1951 was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Her treatment came at Johns Hopkins, the closest hospital that would take black patients at the time.  There, without permission, doctors took samples of her cells. Lacks died a few months later, but her cells did not.

In fact, they grew - something scientists had never witnessed before.

"Henrietta never knew that the cells were taken," Skloot said. "They were taken without her knowledge. She died not knowing these cells had been grown, and no one told her kids until the early 70's, when scientists decided to track down her kids in order to do research on them to learn more about the cells."

Lacks' family had been in the dark for 20 years, unaware a part of their mother was being used for research and profit.  Today, "HELA" cells are used in laboratories all over the world.

"They were used to create the polio vaccine," Skloot said. "They went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity. Her cells were the first ever cloned. Her genes were some of the first ever mapped. We can trace some of our most important cancer medications back to her cells: The HPV vaccine...the list of important advances just goes on and on."
The cells propelled advancement in science, but not in the lives of the Lacks family.

"They were the first cells ever commercialized, and now we have this multi-billion dollar industry that's based on buying and selling cells, tissues, and pattern genes, and it all started really with HELA cells, which is a very tense part of the story, because her family to this day can't afford health insurance," Skloot said. "They're very poor."

"They're wondering why, if their mother's cells were so important to medicine, they can't go to the doctor, and if people are making money off of these things - which they still do - why they can't get some of that."

Skloot is trying to help. She set up the Henrietta Lacks foundation, and part of the proceeds of her book will go to the fund.  Additionally, so will proceeds from a new HBO film, produced by Oprah Winfrey and True Blood creator Alan Ball.

"I'm a consultant on the film and so is the Lacks family," Skloot said. "So they're going to be involved as well, which was important to me when we first started talking about this, and HBO and Oprah were like, 'Absolutely, we want them involved.' There was never a question."

Skloot, who spent a decade researching and writing her book, said she worked hard to earn the trust of the Lacks children - a responsibility she doesn't take lightly.

"I didn't want to be someone who came along who benefited without doing something for them," she said. "Once they decided to trust me, they really did just let me into their lives, and they sort of took over mine, and ten years later, I finally finished the book."

It will take some time to write the script for HBO, but production should begin in about a year.



Feature obituary:
Jean Stevens O'Neill, 81, made many sacrifices for her family

SOUTH PORTLAND - All through her life, Jean Stevens O'Neill battled the effects of polio, a crippling disease contracted when she was 12 years old.
PASSAGES
Each day the newsroom selects one obituary and seeks to learn more about the life of a person who has lived and worked in Maine. We look for a person who has made a mark on the community or the person's family and friends in lasting ways.
It made her tough and compassionate -- a powerful combination that proved to be an excellent example for her two children and three grandchildren.
"All of the qualities you want your kids to have, she instilled in us," said her daughter, Judy Heidenthal, who lives in Virginia Beach, Va.
Mrs. O'Neill died Friday in Norfolk, Va., following a brief illness. She was 81.
Born in Baring, near Calais, she was one of five children of Frank and Ollie Stevens. All three of their daughters had polio.
When Mrs. O'Neill was diagnosed in 1938, her father drove her to a Portland hospital for treatment and returned to his job as a border inspector in Calais. She spent nine months in Portland. Her older sister, Mildred, stayed with her.
"When they dropped her off, they thought she was going to die, because that's what happened to a lot of people," Heidenthal said. "But she made the best of it and recovered."
Among her three sisters, Mrs. O'Neill had the most serious case of polio, affecting her spine and right leg. When she was 21, she traveled to Boston for back surgery and spent the next year in a cast from her shoulders to her hips.
"She must have had a very high pain threshold, after all she experienced," her daughter said. "But she never gave in. She went to physical therapy throughout her life to maintain her strength."
She graduated from Calais Academy in 1947 and attended the Holy Rosary Business School. She worked as a bookkeeper at Todd Brothers hardware store in Calais.
In 1953, she married Lloyd "Bud" O'Neill, whom she met in high school when he was a drummer in a local band called Biscuit Gilman. They later moved to Portland, then settled in South Portland, where they built a house in 1961 and raised their children, Judy and David, who lives in Portland. Her husband died in 1984.
Known for her generosity, integrity and perseverance, Mrs. O'Neill also was known as a hard worker.
When her children were young, she worked nights at the former Union Mutual Life Insurance Co., which would become UNUM.
"She had an outstanding work ethic," her daughter said. "She would go to work after we got home from school. She sacrificed her sleep so that we could have a better life."
When her children were older, she returned to days and worked in several departments before retiring in 1993 with more than 30 years of service.
Despite the effects of polio, she had an adventurous, competitive and playful spirit that showed itself whenever she traveled, to places like Florida, Hawaii and Iceland, and whenever she played cards or other games.
"Like a soldier who's been through a war, she never really talked about her illness, but she was affected by it," her daughter said. "She appreciated life and she had a deep faith in the goodness of people."
 Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:kbouchard@pressherald.com

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