Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I'm late to the party with this book review, as the book was published a couple of years ago now, and Henrietta's story has been updated on the pages of National Geographic and the New York Times. But for those of you who have not yet read it, or have not been around me when I'm going on and on about it--you deserve to be let in on the secret: this is an amazing story, and beautifully told by freelance science writer, Rebecca Skloot.

Henrietta Lacks died in 1950--but part of her still lives on, and I'm not talking about her soul. Her cells, people. Her cells. The Immortal Life is the story of Henrietta and her family and her now-famous immortal cells, known in science and medicine as HeLa, which jump-started the science of cell culturing and all the related scientific miracles that grew out of cell culturing.

When Skloot learned in a high school biology class about these omnipresent and imperishable cells, and about the woman they came from, she hungered to know more. She started on a journey through labs, hospitals, phonebooks, and cemeteries to get to know Henrietta and her descendants; and she crafted a tale of science, family, American history, and ethics that is unlike any other.

The cells were taken by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital, without Henrietta's knowledge or consent, during her treatment for the cervical cancer that ultimately killed her. They were cultured in a lab, and miraculously, they didn't die like every other cell sample that the scientists had attempted to grow.
Henrietta Lacks' immortal cells, stained with dye.
Photo from

Meanwhile, Henrietta suffered through intense and unsuccessful treatments for her cervical cancer, and died. Her children had no idea that part of their mother lived on until Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, received a phone call from a reporter, asking about her mother who had been dead for 20 years. The reporter wanted to know what she thought about her mother's cells being so famous and important to science and medicine--and Deborah said WTF?

Skloot's narrative traces the incredible story of Henrietta Lacks' immortal cells--"the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory." Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson's disease; and they've been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers.

No one knows why Henrietta's cells lived and thrived--but they did; and the scientists who first successfully grew the cells sent batches of them to other scientists, who grew more of them to use in their own experiments. To this day, Henrietta's cells are living and growing and being used in medical and scientific applications around the world and even in space.

Scientists had been trying to grow living cells in the lab since before the turn of the century, but the cells kept dying. It was not until 1951, when Henrietta Lacks' cells began growing in the lab, that the science of cell culture was born. This happened to coincide with the biggest polio epidemic in history, and HeLa cells were used to grow the Salk vaccine and demonstrate its effectiveness. These experiments soon led to advances in virology, genetics, radiation research, and many other branches of science and medicine; they went into orbit on satellites and with the first humans;

Henrietta's cells quickly became famous around the world; they were "taken, bought, sold,
and used in research without her knowledge or theirs." Meanwhile, her family remained poor and unknown, having no awareness and no control over the use of their own genetic material.

Henrietta’s drama becomes the story of ethical dilemmas in science and medicine: informed consent, medical and genetic privacy, patient confidentiality, genetic discrimination,
biological patents, and cell ownership. With sensitivity and perseverance, Skloot digs out the details of Henrietta's life, and the lives of her family members; she weaves the complex science and the deeply personal family story into a colorful, touching narrative.