Henrietta Lacks was only about 30 when a doctor at Johns Hopkins shared some of her cells, taken from a cervical cancer biopsy in 1951, with a colleague who was a researcher.
The researcher, George Gey, had been trying for years to grow human cells in a lab without success.
But Lacks’s cells were different. They thrived in the lab — doubling in number every 24 hours.
The cells — billions of them, estimated to weigh more than 50 million metric tons — have been sent around the world to be used in scientific research, making medical advances like the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization and several antibiotics possible, according to Rebecca Skloot’s book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
Skloot was this year’s featured author in the Ogden School Foundation’s annual Fall Author Event and also visited with two groups of high school students in Ogden School District Friday morning.
Named “HeLa cells,” for the first two letters of Lacks’s first and last names, Lacks’s cells are part of the first immortal human cell line, and they’re still used by researchers today.
To qualify for the special conversation with Skloot and the Lacks, students entered an essay competition judged by Weber State English professors. Their prompt was to write a letter to Lacks thanking her for the HeLa cells.
Superintendent Rich Nye read excerpts from some of these essays Thursday evening.
“Three years ago, I developed a sinus infection, which spread to my brain,” Nye read from a winning student essay. “I would have died without proper antibiotics. Thankfully, because of the testing done with your HeLa cells, my life was saved. And now I’m here, typing up a thank-you for your unknown miracle.”
Lacks died not long after she was treated at Johns Hopkins, at the age of 31, leaving behind five children and a husband.
She never knew her cells had been taken and used for research — nor did her family, until years later when they were contacted by another researcher.
None of her family has been compensated for the use of the cells, which have driven profits in the millions for the companies that use them.
The public, and even researchers who worked with her cells, knew little about Lacks until a book until Skloot’s book was released in 2010, after a decade spent working on it in cooperation with the Lacks family.
Skloot worked closely with Lacks’s daughter Deborah, who wanted to learn more about her mother and pushed Skloot to complete the project.
The book is a portrait of Lacks and her descendants as well as an exploration of medical and research ethics.
A New York Times bestseller, the book has won a host of awards and been made into a movie starring Oprah. In the year after its publication, Skloot had about 430 speaking engagements, upending her life, she told both groups of high school students.
Three of Lacks’s descendants came with Skloot to speak to the Ogden community: Alfred Carter Jr., Lack’s grandson and son of Deborah, Veronica Robinson, Lacks’s great granddaughter, and Brian Baptiste III, her great great grandson.
Thursday night, the group spoke to an audience who had purchased tables and tickets to the event to support the foundation, which is made possible by several significant community donors.
Friday morning, 10 high school students in Ogden School District also had the chance to meet with Skloot and the Lacks family members. The guests also spoke to a larger group of high school students afterward.
When the essay winners met with Skloot and the Lacks family members, they had a more informal conversation, where students were able to ask the guests a variety of questions — about the family’s emotional reactions to learning more about their grandmother, about their relationship with Skloot and about Skloot’s writing process.
Despite the serious and sensitive nature of the subject, there was a lot of laughter on all sides as they recalled their memories.
Because of previous deceptions by researchers and others seeking to take advantage of the family’s relationship to the HeLa cells, Skloot had to work to build trust with the family, especially Deborah, in order to complete the project.
Deborah thought having a white writer work on the project would make it more successful, an idea that Skloot resisted until she had experiences interviewing white subjects, who referred to the Lacks family with disdain while treating Skloot differently.
Skloot described the project as an education in race relations and racism in the United States, something that was foreign to her since she grew up in predominantly white Portland.
Not only did Skloot build trust, she’s now considered a member of the family, Robinson said.
“(Skloot) comes from such a small family ... and she just ended up getting such a larger family because she became part of our family,” Robinson said.
While Skloot is moving on to a new project on animal research and testing, which she describes as “her other obsession,” she won’t leave the relationship with the family behind.
Skloot has watched many of the family members grow up, she said.
“I was just like kind of this weird part of the family,” Skloot said. “’Oh this is that white lady who follows Aunt Deborah around,’ as if every family has one of those.”
Students and their teachers said that they found the book particularly engaging.
“One of the hardest things to do as a teacher ... is to help students realize the relevance of what we’re doing,” said Isaac Thomas, English teacher at Ben Lomond High School, while introducing the panel. “But with this story of this amazing woman, it’s easy to see how it applied to their lives, and the students were immediately engaged in reading and writing this essay.”