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Oprah To Star In Story of Henrietta Lacks Whose Cancer Cells Boosted Bioscience

By Frederick H. Lowe

Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from

Oprah Winfrey will star in an HBO movie based on the 2010 nonfiction book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. Lacks was an African-American woman whose cancerous cells launched the multimillion-dollar bioscience industry that her family did not learn about until 20 years after her death. Lacks’ cancerous cells were cultured without her knowledge or permission at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The cells were given to Dr. George Otto Gey, a researcher there. Gey discovered the first immortal cell line for medical research, which is known as HeLa (Henrietta Lacks). Unlike other cells that died after a few days, Lacks’ cells continued to grow.

Used for the Polio vaccine

By 1954, the HeLa strain of cells was being used by Jonas Salk to develop a vaccine for polio. To test Salk’s new vaccine, the cells were quickly put into mass production in the first-ever cell production factory. In 1955, HeLa cells were the first human cells successfully cloned. Lacks’ family, however, couldn’t afford health insurance. The family never benefitted from the money made from the discoveries.

The story will be told through the eyes of Lacks’ daughter, Deborah, played by Winfrey. In addition to Deborah, Lacks’ other children were Lawrence, David Jr., Joseph and Elisie. Her husband was David Lacks, Sr. Henrietta Lacks died on October 4, 1951. She was buried in a grave without a headstone. In 2010, Dr. Roland Pattillo of Morehouse School of Medicine donated a headstone, after reading Skloot’s book.

A historical marker memorializing her has been installed in Lackstown, Va., a section of Clover, Va., her hometown. In 1996, Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and the mayor of Atlanta recognized Henrietta Lacks’ family for her posthumous contributions to medicine and health research. On September 14, 2011, the Board of Directors of of the Evergreen School District in Vancouver, Washington, named a new health and bioscience high school in her honor. The new school opened in the fall of 2013 and is named Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School. The film’s release date has not been scheduled.

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