True story behind "immortal" cells wins Wellcome prize

Wed Nov 10, 2010 10:08am EST
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LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The true story of a woman whose cancer cells were removed illicitly during surgery around 60 years ago and helped revolutionize modern medical research has won the second Wellcome Trust book prize.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," published by Pan Macmillan, is the debut work of U.S. science writer Rebecca Skloot, 37.

It charts the life and death of the eponymous Lacks, an African-American woman whose cells played a vital role in the development of chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, IVF and polio vaccinations.

Taken from Lacks without her knowledge as she underwent surgery for the cervical cancer which killed her at the age of 31, her tumor cells became known as HeLa, after the first two letters of each of her names.

Scientists in the Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, where Lacks died, had been trying to start a continuously reproducing cell line of "immortal" human cells outside the human body.

Lacks's cells were the first sample that survived, allowing scientists to study how human cells reacted to toxins, drugs, radiation and infections.

Skloot's non-fiction account follows the moving story behind the scientific breakthroughs, revealing that while Lacks's cells lived on in science, the mother-of-five was buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery in Virginia.

The book also raises questions about the inequities of the modern healthcare system in the United States. Today Lacks's family are unable to afford the medical advances that their mother's cells helped to make possible.

The Wellcome Trust, a global health charity, announced late on Tuesday that Skloot had beaten five other shortlisted works to the 25,000 pound ($40,000) prize, open to outstanding works of fiction and non-fiction on the theme of health and medicine.

The other nominees were Emma Henderson for "Grace William Says It Loud," John Nichol and Tony Rennell for "MEDIC - Saving Lives From Dunkirk To Afghanistan," Tim Parks for "Teach Us To Sit Still," Lionel Shriver for "So Much for That," and Gareth Williams for "Angel of Death: The Story of Smallpox."

(Reporting by Adam Jourdan; editing by Mike Collett-White and Paul Casciato)