The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave. Author Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.
While on vacation with my family 2 months ago, this blog challenge came up in conversation. My sister-in-law asked how I pick books to read. I explained that I view reading as an extension of my knowledge in this world. In addition to reading fun entertaining “light reads”, I LOVE reading books that enrich my life, teach me about topics previously foreign, and enable me to understand our world a bit. More than anything, I’ve found my favorite books to be those suggested by close friends and family. So, please, keep the suggestions coming!
My sister-in-law, a cellular biologist at Columbia University, suggested I read this book about the woman whose cells changed the course of biotechnology. This woman’s cervical cancer cells were harvested during a routine procedure in the 1950s and became the first “immortal cells” discovered to grow in culture by human biologists. My sister and brother-in-law, both medical doctors, were also fascinated by the conversation I was having with my SIL. I quickly jotted down the name of the book and was completely intrigued. I requested it from my library but when I got home, I found the library wait was 80 people deep with me the 80th requestor. Then I got a phone call the next day from my sister telling me that Skloot, author of this amazing book just gave a lecture at the top hospital in which they are completing their medical residency! That’s not all- she’d also just gotten an autographed copy of the book by the author herself- talk about serendipity! I was so jealous that I’d JUST missed Skloot’s book tour date in my area. I’d never even HEARD of this book until our fortuitous conversation. I was so excited when I received my sister’s copy in my mailbox (after she read it first, of course)!
Although this book is in the genre of science/cultural studies, I love how it reads like a memoir of Henrietta’s life AND quite a bit of Skloot’s. Skloot succeeds in combining Henrietta’s biography, an accurate timeline of the progression of biotechnology, along with the political and emotional hurdles she climbed through to write this book. I absolutely commend Skloot for having the patience and fortitude to overcome the racial and generational obstacles she did. Skloot persevered to tell Henrietta’s story once and for all, the way it was meant to be written. With a background in journalism, Skloot does Henrietta’s story much justice and makes her family proud, learning much about her own spirituality along the way. This book had me sucked just by reading this sentence on the cover, “Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion dollar industry. More than 20 years later her children found out and they’ll never be the same”.
Scientists nicknamed Henrietta’s cells “HeLa”. Biotechnologists investigated HeLa and began using her husband and children’s cells in research without documented consent. It was only then, more than 40 years after Henrietta’s untimely death that her family finally learned of her “immortality”. The saddest part of all- neither Henrietta’s children nor the Lacks Family decedents ever saw a dime from the multimillion-dollars made off the human biological materials from HeLa’s cells.
HeLa cells are still being used today because they grow so relentlessly in culture, which is rare for cells generally, which have a finite number of divisions. During the polio epidemic, scientists grew mass amounts of HeLa cells to test the vaccine. Before long, a commercial enterprise grew batches for large-scale use. Discoveries piled up. HeLa cells also led to the breakthrough discovery about the human genome and DNA mapping, enabling the creation of genetic tests to find birth defects like Downs Syndrome. Before too long, HeLa went cosmic! NASA launched HeLa into space to analyze how human cells behave in zero-gravity. The cells, in turn, helped launch virology as a field and shot medical research forward with warp speed.
HeLa cells weren’t all used in the most ethical ways. Skloot offered a great historical progression giving the reader much perspective. She went on to discuss the pre-Nuremburg trial era, when the Nazis performed extremely inhumane heinous medical procedures on Jews. Before the Nuremberg Trials or establishment of the Nuremburg Code, there was no regulation on human experimentation. As the book goes deeper into detail, codified ethics were in place to ‘govern’ human medical experimentation. These laws put a stop to doctors performing experiments on a population like prison inmates, whose ability to provide ‘informed consent’ was in question. But are your cells and blood plasma your property? Or are they the property of the hospital to further research? And what happens if the research from your cells could lead to a cure for a disease? Then what? The implications to the body of research are horrific to think about.
According to the book, “Experts on both sides of the debate worry that compensating patients would lead to profit-seekers inhibiting science by insisting on unrealistic financial agreements or demanding money for tissues used in noncommercial or nonprofit research”.
This book makes a great basis for conversation to argue both sides of the debate. For example, before these codified laws, Dr. Southam, mentioned in the book, put up a flyer in a prison asking for inmates to volunteer to be injected with HeLa’s cancerous cells. The findings were amazing- you’ll definitely want to read this book to hear the results and find out more about how HeLa cells are forever connected to “the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of”.
Skloot became an honorary member of the family during her time researching this more than decade-long labor of love. She even set up a scholarship fund for the Lacks decendents so they may have the educational opportunities Henrietta’s children did not. I recommend this book for anyone living in America, especially those who like me, are fascinated, by the pharmaceutical industry’s treatment of cancer, the idea of socialized healthcare in our country, and ideas about bioethics and cloning. One of the most thought-provoking reads I’ve ever come across.
24 down, 29 to go (almost over the hump)!
In progress, Secret Daughter