Science Writer to Discuss “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

Science Writer to Discuss “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

February 14, 2010

PHILADELPHIA – (February 15, 2010) – Science writer Rebecca Skloot will discuss her new book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, February 16, at The Wistar Institute. The lecture is part of the 2010 Wistar Institute Authors Series.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, and her significant contribution to scientific research. Lacks was a 31-year-old African-American mother of five in Baltimore when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at the Johns Hopkins Hospital took tissue samples from her cervix for research. The cells spawned the first viable and productive immortalized human cell line for biomedical research, known as HeLa cells.

The worldwide research community has bought and sold HeLa cells by the billions over the years, and their use is virtually ubiquitous. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine. Studying HeLa cells, researchers have gained important information about cancer and viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb on normal human cells. HeLa research has enabled advances in genetics such as in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping.

Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave, and her children did not learn of the use of her cells in research until 20 years after her death. Skloot’s book explores the story of the Lacks family as well as the creation of the HeLa cell line and its connection to the evolution of modern concepts in medical ethics, informed consent, and legal issues surrounding cell use.

Historically, HeLa cells have advanced scientific discovery at Wistar. In 1962, Leonard Hayflick, Ph.D., observed the behavior of HeLa cells and deduced that cancer cells, but not normal human cells, are immortal. Hayflick went on to demonstrate that normal human cells grown in culture will divide 52 times—with each division shortening the protective telomeres at the ends of the chromosomes—before senescing, or aging. Known as the Hayflick Limit, this biological mechanism protects against the genetic instability that leads to cancer and, thus, is an important principle in cancer and aging research. In the 1970s, Wistar researcher Gerd Maul, Ph.D., discovered HeLa cells could be manipulated so they divided in synchrony. The ability to synchronize the cells in a group made them a valuable research tool.

Today, Wistar researchers use HeLa cells in vaccine development. Jan Erikson, Ph.D., uses HeLa cells in her effort to create a universal influenza vaccine that would be effective against all strains of the flu— including seasonal and pandemic outbreaks. Erikson uses a combination of HeLa cells and an influenza virus protein, engineered by Wistar professor emeritus Walter Gerhard, M.D., called Matrix protein 2 (M2). There is little variation between M2 proteins found in different flu strains; therefore, an immune response against M2 could be protective against different flu strains. HeLa cells are able to sustain the expression of M2 in its native configuration, and the Erikson lab uses HeLa-M2 cells to test whether immunized mice develop a protective immune response to M2.

Skloot is a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine. Her writing also appears in The New York Times Magazine, O: The Oprah Magazine, Discover, Columbia Journalism Review, Prevention, and others. Previously she worked as a correspondent for National Public Radio’s RadioLab and PBS’s Nova ScienceNOW. Skloot’s first book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” debuted at No. 5 on the New York Times bestseller list February 21.

The Joseph Fox Bookshop, an independent bookstore located at 1724 Sansom Street in Philadelphia, will provide books for sale at the Wistar event. Crown, a division of Random House, published “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” in February 2010.

The Wistar Institute Authors Series features general-interest books about science and medicine. The free program is part of Wistar’s public outreach efforts, which aim to introduce the Institute and its research mission to a wider audience. For more information, visit

The Wistar Institute is an international leader in biomedical research with special expertise in cancer research and vaccine development. Founded in 1892 as the first independent nonprofit biomedical research institute in the country, Wistar has long held the prestigious Cancer Center designation from the National Cancer Institute. The Institute works actively to ensure that research advances move from the laboratory to the clinic as quickly as possible. The Wistar Institute: Today’s Discoveries – Tomorrow’s Cures. On the Web at