Discovery Park

Best-selling author to give reading, talk at Cancer Culture & Community Colloquium

February 18, 2010

Through the new book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," award-winning medical writer Rebecca Skloot chronicles the life of a 31-year-old African-American mother of five who died of cervical cancer nearly 60 years ago.

Skloot will present Lacks' intriguing story of science, research, ethics, class and race to Purdue University next month with a reading and talk as part of the ongoing Cancer Culture & Community Colloquium led by Discovery Park's Oncological Sciences Center.

The reading, which is free and open to the public, begins at 7 p.m. March 9 in the Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship, Room 121. Skloot will host a book signing after the talk.

"Rebecca Skloot has introduced the world to the story of Henrietta Lacks, who brought to the scientific community the first 'immortal' human cells whose descendants are alive in culture today," said Julie

Nagel, managing director of Purdue's Oncological Sciences Center. "Rebecca delivers a captivating talk about Lacks' contribution to science, the effect that has had on her family and what we can learn from this important part of the history of cancer research."

Purdue's Cancer Culture & Community Colloquium is sponsored by the Sciences Center; Purdue Center for Cancer Research; and the College of Pharmacy, Nursing and Health Sciences.

In February 1951, Lacks was treated at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. During her treatment, her physician removed cells from her cervix without telling her, and Dr. George Gey of Johns Hopkins later discovered the cells could not only be kept alive but would grow indefinitely.

Lacks' family, however, didn't know the cell cultures existed until more than 20 years after her death in October 1951. Her children also were later used in research related to the cells without their knowledge, Skloot writes.

Decades later these cell lines, known as HeLa, have been cultured and used in experiments ranging from determining the long-term effects of radiation to testing the live polio vaccine. In addition, HeLa cells have uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses and the effects of the atom bomb, as well as assisting in important advances like in-vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping.

The cells also were commercialized and have generated millions of dollars in profit for those involved in the research. But Skloot said Lacks' family never shared in the profits, and her children struggle to afford health insurance today.

Publishers Weekly called Skloot's story of Henrietta Lacks "a stunning debut," and the book was named a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick for spring of 2010.

A contributing editor at Popular Science magazine, Skloot has worked as a correspondent for NPR's "RadioLab" and PBS's "Nova ScienceNOW." Her writing appears in The New York Times Magazine, O: The Oprah Magazine, Discover, Columbia Journalism Review, Prevention and many others.

The Oncological Sciences Center, in partnership with the College of Liberal Arts, launched the Cancer Culture & Community initiative in 2007 to explore how the arts and literature provide an outlet of expression to those struggling with cancer.

The Oncological Sciences Center is the Discovery Park arm of the National Cancer Institute-designated Purdue Center for Cancer Research, integrating broad areas of research in life sciences, liberal arts, engineering and chemical sciences to advance the application of cancer research to the clinic. It focuses on engaging cancer clinicians, both locally and at the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center, in the early stages of new technology and drug development.

Writer: Phillip Fiorini, 765-496-3133, pfiorini@purdue.edu

Sources:   Julie Nagel, 765-496-9316, jrnagel@purdue.edu

                    Kris Swank, 765-494-4674, kswank@purdue.edu

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