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Wellcome Trust Book Prize goes to Rebecca Skloot

November 9, 2010 |  3:23 pm

Rebecca Skloot's book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" has won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, it was announced Tuesday. It is the second year of the award, which is open to works of fiction and nonfiction published in the U.K. that celebrate medicine.

Skloot's book is, in part, the history of Henrietta Lacks, a woman who died of cervical cancer; her cancer cells, which were taken without her knowledge, became an essential part of medical research in the 20th century. Those cells -- HeLa cells -- were the first human cells to be able to reproduce on their own in a laboratory; they enabled countless scientific advances, including the development of the polio vaccine and the discovery of chromosomes. They're still reproducing: That's what makes them immortal.

The book also raises interesting questions about medical research. What ownership should we -- or researchers or corporations -- have over samples taken from our bodies? As medicine made leaps forward because of Lacks' cells, surviving members of her family struggled, often without being able to afford healthcare themselves.

Skloot's efforts to track down the family and earn their trust are part of the book, which took 10 years to write. In an interview earlier this year, she said that as she was writing, "history was kind of vanishing."

I felt like I was scrambling along behind it. I was sort of trying my best to keep up as everything was going away. There were two different cases where people who knew Henrietta or knew George Gey, the scientist [whose lab grew her cells], died right before I was supposed to interview them, which was just devastating. There were a few other cases, like her cousins, who died immediately after I interviewed them, and I thought I got this incredible piece of history, right before it went away. And the burden of that as a writer was pretty intense for me. I felt such a duty to tell the story and tell it well and do justice to all sides of the story.

Skloot, whose book was selected from a short list of six -- three other works of nonfiction and two novels -- will receive about $40,000 for the award.

 -- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Rebecca Skloot. Credit: Crown Publishers / Random House