Close-up image of HeLa cells that have been stained with the dye Hoechst 33258 to make their nuclei fluorescent blue.

Reading Program Explores the Woman Behind HeLa Cells

Assistant Professor Brandon White stands next to an open cell culture incubator with HeLa cell cultures in a Department of Biological Sciences lab. Photo by Sarah Kyo.

Professor Brandon White stands next to a cell culture incubator with HeLa cell cultures in a biology lab in Duncan Hall. Photo by Sarah Kyo.

By Sarah Kyo, Public Affairs Assistant

The polio vaccine, cancer research, gene mapping — some of molecular biology and medicine’s important breakthroughs and research can be traced back to HeLa cells.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, the Fall 2011 Campus Reading Program book selection, explores the history of this famous cell line, the woman from whom these cells originated and the ethical issues surrounding them.

Part of the reason for this book’s selection was that it stressed one of President Mohammad Qayoumi’s key themes for student success: integrative learning, said Scot Guenter, professor of American Studies.

“It deftly pulls together science, medicine, African-American history, the procedure of journalistic research and questions of ethics — and it is well written!” said Guenter, who is head of the Campus Reading Program committee.

Lacks was an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. A sample of her cancerous cervix cells was taken without her or her family’s knowledge and permission. These cells would be replicated at a mass scale and used in laboratories around the world, creating one of the first established human cell lines.

People have an opportunity to view HeLa cells under a microscope at SJSU. Assistant Professor Brandon White of Biological Sciences hosts scheduled cell viewings.

White said HeLa cells are important because they’re part of the first established human cell lines and “they grow like crazy. They’re like weeds in a way.” He said he did not know much about the woman behind the cells until he read the book.

“I highly recommend the book,” White said. “Anyone can read it. You don’t have to be a scientist.”

White uses these cells in his own research. He will give a lecture about HeLa cells’ applications and uses on Oct. 26 at 12 p.m. in Room 225/229 of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library.

Other book-related events include discussions, lectures and movie viewings. One of Lacks’ son, David, will speak in Engineering Room 189 on Oct. 3 at 3 p.m.

A committee made up of faculty and staff from different colleges and departments select each of the Campus Reading Program’s  latest titles. Guenter said the program’s main goal is to help spread “a culture of reading,” while building community at SJSU.

“We are about integrating ideas, encouraging questions and connecting minds and making new friendships while reinforcing old ones,” he said. “Check out The Immortal Life of Henrieta Lacks, and come join us!”

For more information, visit the Campus Reading Program’s website.