Children play and frolic on swings not far from where an immortal woman was born.

Henrietta Lacks, whose body produced cells so prolific they still live and regenerate in laboratories nearly six decades after her death, was born in Roanoke's West End in 1920. Perry Park occupies much of the city block along Norfolk Avenue and 12th Street, where Lacks lived for part of her early childhood near the Norfolk and Western train tracks.

Her life, however, isn't why she has become one of Roanoke's most famous natives. Ironically, it is her death that made her legacy, which is chronicled in the best-selling book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot.

After Lacks died from cervical cancer in Baltimore in 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital used her cancerous cells without the family's consent.

Those cells -- which became known as HeLa cells short for Henrietta Lacks -- became the first cell line to ever grow in culture.

They spawned some of the greatest medical advances in history, from helping to develop the polio vaccine to testing the effects of atomic bombs to aiding the study of cloning and genome mapping.

Now, Skloot's book has turned the spotlight on the HeLa cells and the woman from whom they came. Oprah Winfrey's production company is working on an HBO movie based on the book.

"The younger generation [of the Lacks family] didn't know much about what Henrietta did until they read the book," said Skloot, who will be speaking at Hollins University on Tuesday.

"Now, Henrietta's a rock star."

Simple beginnings

Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on Aug. 1, 1920, and she lived her first few years in a now-long-gone house near the train tracks in the vicinity of Norfolk Avenue and 12th Street.

After her mother, Eliza Lacks Pleasant, died in 1924 while giving birth to her 10th child, Loretta's father, Johnny Pleasant, moved the children to Halifax County, where other family lived in the tobacco farming community of Clover.

Along the way, Loretta became Henrietta, she married her cousin David Lacks and began having children. When World War II broke out, the Lackses moved to Baltimore, where David found work and where Henrietta would live the last decade of her life.

According to Skloot's book, Lacks was born in Roanoke "into a small shack on a dead-end road overlooking a train depot, where hundreds of freight cars came and went each day." The precise address or street name is not provided.

According to Roanoke city directories from the late 1910s and early 1920s, John R. Pleasant and his wife Eliza lived in a pair of locations on 12th Street and Norfolk Avenue. Those were the names of Lacks' parents.

During an interview, Skloot said she could not recall the exact address of Lacks' birthplace, but she said she spent a couple of days doing research in Roanoke in 2002. She spent as long as an hour just sitting in the old neighborhood, absorbing the sights and sounds along the train tracks, where coal-fired engines would have chugged past some 90 years ago, spewing soot and cinders along the streets.

"It was an intense place to live," Skloot said. "It was a loud place. She would have played there as loud trains went by."

Roanoke is where tragedy first befell Lacks with her mother's death.

Her childhood in Roanoke "changed the story of her life and family," Skloot said. "Not only did she lose her mother, she got ... uprooted and shipped to Clover. They all lost their entire lives when her mother died."

A debate over rights

If all the HeLa cells ever produced were placed on a scale, they would weigh 50 million metric tons.

The cells were commercialized for scientific research and led to incredible discoveries, but the Lacks family never shared in the proceeds.

Skloot's book is as much about Lacks' five children as it is about science. Doctors contacted Lacks' four surviving children in the 1970s to test their cells and determine if they had the same reproductive super powers. Although the tests were mostly negative, it was only then that the children learned about the HeLa line.

As Skloot researched the origin of the HeLa line, Skloot developed relationships with the family, especially Lacks' youngest daughter, Deborah, whose own quest to learn about a mother she barely knew drives the story.

The book deals with the delicate balance between scientific research and the rights of individuals, whose tissues can be taken without permission. Recently, courts have ruled in favor of patients who never gave consent for their tissues and cells -- actual pieces of their bodies -- to be used for research.

However, without those tissues, scientists contend their valuable research might be impeded and cures for diseases might never be found.

The circumstances of Lacks' cells -- they were taken from a sick black woman by white doctors -- also fostered distrust with scientific and medical communities among blacks. Skloot said she hears from many black people during her lectures who are glad this story has been told.

"Some black members of my audiences are reminded of the slavery era, when people were used without consent," she said. "I'm finding that mistrust still exists. African-Americans don't go to the doctor as often as they should because of this history."

Proud of Henrietta

Skloot's work has generated some good for the Lacks family. She founded the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which provides scholarship assistance to Lacks' descendents and helps with the family's medical bills. (One of the great ironies of the Lacks family's struggles is that, despite her being responsible for landmark medical discoveries, many of her descendents have no health insurance.)

Skloot said the foundation has paid for college tuition for five of Lacks' grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"The younger ones are really into science," Skloot said.

A physician and professor in Atlanta helped pay for a headstone for Lacks' previously unmarked grave in Clover. Skloot bought one for Deborah, who died in 2009.

Skloot has remained close to the family, especially the younger members, who contact her after most of her appearances.

"They'll text me and ask, 'How was it? Did they ask good questions?' " Skloot said. "It's been therapeutic for the family in some ways. They're all proud for what Henrietta did for science."

Contact Ralph Berrier Jr. at 981-3338 or ralph.berrier@roanoke.com.

Ralph Berrier Jr. has worked at The Roanoke Times since 1993, was the paper’s music reporter from 2000-2007 and he currently writes the Dadline parenting column and is a general assignment features reporter.

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