Henrietta Lacks was 31 and the mother of five children when she died in 1951 of cervical cancer. Her family had no idea scientists used her cells to change the world.Lacks’ one-of-a-kind cells, nicknamed HeLa, were instrumental in developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. She was the poor descendant of freed slaves and their white owners. Despite the fact her cells made others billions of dollars her husband and children lived in poverty. Twenty years after her death they learned about her contribution to science when researchers took sample tissues from them without their informed consent.
Lacks’ story and the ethical questions it raises about medical research is told in the bestselling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot. The book is being made into an HBO film by Oprah Winfrey. Next week Henrietta Lacks’ son, David “Sonny” Lacks, and granddaughter, Jeri Lacks-Whye, will speak in Moscow and Pullman. The book was required reading for freshmen at Washington State University and University of Idaho.
Sonny Lacks is a tractor-trailer driver from Baltimore. In a phone call from his home he spoke to Inland 360 about the book and his mother, who died when he was 4.
360: In the book you and your family are initially shocked and confused when you discover what happened to your mother’s cells. Is there still anger?
Lacks: “Of course there are mixed feelings. Certain things happened back then that were uncontrollable. I feel OK about it now. I’m just proud she was able to help so many. It’s a good thing when somebody can help somebody.”
360: I understand that when you are touring the country speaking people often stand up and tell you how your mother’s cells have benefited them?
Lacks: “There’s quite a bit of that. A lot of people tell me things. That kind of makes me feel a whole lot better and a whole lotta good. It’s still helping people.”
360: How has the book changed your life?
Lacks: “It’s given me the opportunity and the chance to tour the U.S. speaking to different people and to hear a lot of people’s opinions. It’s just interesting. It’s good I can get around to places I would never have gotten to see.”
360: Is there a message you want to convey to the audiences you speak to?
Lacks: “When you go to your physician, make sure you understand what they’re telling you. A lot of people don’t understand. Let them explain to you in certain ways that you will understand.”
360: Do you think our cells belong to us?
Lacks: “I’m still in the learning stage but from what I’ve learned, when you give your consent and they take your body (part), once you give it, it’s theirs; but research is important. Without research you have no cure.”
If You Go
Who: David “Sonny” Lacks and Jeri Lacks-Whye, son and granddaughter of the subject of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”
When and Where:
–7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 22, Student Union Building Ballroom, University of Idaho, Moscow
–7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 23, Beasley Coliseum, Washington State University. A book signing will follow on the Beasley concourse.