By Kaye Foley
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” brings to life the true story of an African-American woman whose tumor cells transformed the future of medical research. Her cells — HeLa cells — taken as a sample by doctors without her knowledge, were discovered to be “immortal,” meaning they continued to live outside the body. HeLa cells led scientists to many medical discoveries, such as the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization and cancer treatments, which have changed countless lives.
The 2010 bestseller is now a film starring Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne and Renée Elise Goldsberry. Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric sat down with Rose Byrne and author Rebecca Skloot, who spent more than 10 years researching and writing the book, to learn more about Henrietta and the Lacks family.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks debuts on HBO on April 22.
Byrne, who had first read about HeLa cells in the New York Times, was drawn to the story and the friendship between Skloot and Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, which is at the heart of the film.
“I didn’t particularly want to go back to work because I had just had a baby, but I couldn’t say no,” Byrne explained. “I want[ed] to be in service of telling this story.”
Although the story is about these amazing cells, it’s also about the quest of a daughter to discover a mother she never knew. Byrne recalled that Winfrey, who stars as Deborah Lacks, was nervous about tackling this role.
“We had fun,” Byrne said of working with Winfrey. “It’s a very unique story, but she brought the vulnerability of Deborah too, which was really important.”
In the 1950s, at the time of Henrietta’s illness, scientists often took samples from patients in search of cells that would stay alive in a laboratory so they could be studied.
“[Henrietta’s] cancer was caused by HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer. It’s sort of chance where it lands,” Skloot explained. “It just happens that where the HPV virus landed on her genome turned on one of the most aggressive tumor genes it could have possibly turned on. … They’re still to this day one of the most commonly used cells because they’re just hard to kill.”
Henrietta’s cells were used in research for more than two decades before the Lacks family found out.
“It’s heartbreaking. That’s the part of the book I was most drawn to … the story of the family,” Byrne said. “It encompasses a lot of things about America and about race and about … the disparity of access of care to African-American communities and white communities.”