Telegraph: Rebecca Skloot wins £25,000 Wellcome Book Prize for story of cancer victim

November 11th, 2010

Rebecca Skloot wins £25,000 Wellcome Book Prize for story of cancer victim

Rebecca Skloot, an American author, has won a £25,000 book prize for her biography of a female cancer victim whose cells went on to become one of the most important tools in medicine.

7:30AM GMT 10 Nov 2010

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The debut work won the second Wellcome Book Prize for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the story of a poor Southern tobacco farmer.

Although Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave her “HeLa cells”, which were taken without her knowledge, were vital for developing the polio vaccine and uncovering secrets of cancer, viruses and the effects of the atom bomb. They also helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping.

Lacks died of cervical cancer in October 1951. Skloot’s book has ignited a debate in America about ethics, race, issues of consent and the exploitation of patients. The discovery of the unique properties of HeLa cells led to the creation of a billion dollar industry.

Oprah Winfrey is to make a film charting Lacks’s life in the era of segregation, her extraordinary legacy and its traumatic consequences for her descendants.