Live discussion with Rebecca Skloot

February 9, 2010

Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 of cancer in a “colored” ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. But the cells doctors took from her body before she died are still alive today, in labs all over the world. They’ve been to space, were part of atomic bomb testing, and were critical in developing the polio vaccine and other scientific advances.

Companies made millions selling Lacks’ cells – known as HeLa cells – but her family had no idea until the early 1970s, when scientists decided they could learn more about cancer and other diseases by studying the Lacks family DNA – all without their consent. The family didn’t see a dime of those profits, and had very little idea of what had happened to Henrietta, who is buried in an unmarked grave in a dying town in Virginia.

Rebecca Skloot spent ten years tracking down the history of HeLa and the Lacks Rebecca-Skloot-Photo-c-Manda-Townsendfamily. The New York Times called the result – “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”– “a thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty.” Others have heaped on similar praise.

Do patients own the rights to their tissues once they’re removed? Could what happened to Henrietta Lacks and her family happen again today?

Join us for a live online discussion of these provocative questions and others with Rebecca Skloot  and bioethicist Karen Maschke, of the Hastings Center, on Thursday, Feb. 11, at 12pm ET. The event will be moderated by Reuters Health Executive Editor Ivan Oransky.

If you have any questions for the participants, please leave them in the comments below. We’ll ask a selection on your behalf.

You can follow along live by calling 877-393-3363 and using the passcode 18897094 and online at, which will go live as the discussion starts, for questions and comments.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

How much are you earning as income from the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”? Is any of that profit being channeled to any living member of the Lacks family? Can you provide us with some details about the use of the Lacks cells in the development of the polio vaccine? Were those cells some of those that had been contaminated with cancer tainted green monkey cells? (To reference this point please recall that millions of Americans have been exposed to ‘viral cancer’ as a result of having been inoculated with a polio virus that was tainted with cancer dna that had been introduced from a contaminated batch of green monkey cells used to produce the vaccine.)

Posted by cranston | Report as abusive

Rebecca can speak more to this point, cranston, but she has established for profits and donations to fund scholarships for descendants of Ms. Lacks who wish to pursue university study in the biomedical fields.

From the website:
Given available funds, in addition to providing support for members of Henrietta Lacks’s family, the foundation will seek to provide financial assistance to other African Americans in need who are pursuing education in science and medicine.

The Foundation also accepts donations from anyone wishing to support this effort.

Posted by DaJoKr | Report as abusive

cranston, your second point relates to the known contamination of polio vaccine with DNA sequences from SV40 infection of African green monkey cells used to generate the vaccine in the 1960s. Your term “cancer DNA” is not exactly accurate. SV40 proteins, large T antigen in particular, can only cause cancer when expressed at very high levels in cells under the artifical control of extremely strong gene promoter elements from another virus. The SV40 contamination of the vaccine was shown not to increase cancer rates in those vaccinated.

Posted by DaJoKr | Report as abusive

From what I understand, the Lacks family said they would not have allowed the tissue to be used if they had been able to prevent it. The tissue was also apparently taken from a biopsy and that’s still the property of the hospital that takes it, so the situation could happen even today. What exactly was so unique about Henrietta Lacks’ cells? I understand they were “immortal,” but what percentage of us have these immortal cells, and would the polio vaccine, for instance, have been created without the use of these cells? How long did it take until another immortal cell line was created? What would the state of science have been if these cells had not been used?

Finally, is the Lacks family happy that their relative was able to contribute so much to science? Every time I see discussion of them it mentions monetary compensation. I would be happy if any of my deceased relatives could have made such a contribution to science. Are they pleased about that?

Posted by glorialloyd | Report as abusive