The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

 Reviewed: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

On October 4th 1951 an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks died in John Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore, finally succumbing to multiple tumours which had metastasized from her cervical cancer. Despite her death, the contribution she has made indirectly to modern science continues to this day.  In February 1951, when Henrietta was first administered radium treatment for cervical cancer, a sample of cancerous cells were taken from her cervix – without her knowledge. Henrietta’s cells provided an ‘immortal’ cell line that would perpetually divide when cultured. These cells were named ‘HeLa’ using the first two letters of the forename and surname of Henrietta Lacks. The cells soon became famous worldwide but Henrietta herself remained unknown.

This intriguing story is told masterfully by Rebecca Skloot in her book ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’. It is a story about HeLa cells, but also about Henrietta Lacks and the family who survived her. Although HeLa was distributed to research laboratories all over the world, the name of the cell donor remained largely unknown, often being given incorrectly as Helen Lane or Helen Larson. Cultured cells of HeLa have been grown in bulk, sold and distributed worldwide often at a large profit, and yet the family of Henrietta Lacks were not informed about the use of Henrietta’s cells or remunerated in any way. Skloot has attempted to redress this imbalance and bring into the open the full story.

This is a book about science, but it is certainly not a book heavy in scientific details. If you are only interested in learning the technical details of how HeLa cells are used in research, or about the ways in which they are cultured and investigated, then this is probably not the book for you. However, this is a book about the impact science has on us all. This remarkable story allows Skloot to highlight the wider ethical implications for scientific research. Science touches on many, if not nearly every, aspect of modern life and the story of HeLa shows how science can have a very personal and deeply emotional impact.

Skloot had become fascinated by the story of the woman behind HeLa when in graduate school and her book reflects years of research; she was also able to contact and befriend many of Henrietta’s relatives, in particular Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. This allows the reader to really connect with the story as we learn about Henrietta’s family and how they have been affected by the worldwide fame of HeLa. I enjoyed learning the background of the HeLa cells and about some of the key scientists working on early cell culturing methods; however, it was also an enjoyable and often emotional story which encouraged me to keep on reading.

 A real strength of this book lies in the wonderful fusion between a touching real-life story and an eye-opening insight into scientific ethics and science communication. This book delves interestingly into the ethical debate concerning what consent should be given when tissues or blood samples are taken. It also examines science communication and how well scientists are able to convey information to the public. Added to this, the story of Henrietta and her family is moving and sometimes saddening, but ultimately uplifting and inspiring.

One thing worth noting is that a lot of the examples given in the book come from the practice of scientists in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Science has moved on and things have changed for the better, but at times I’m not sure this came across. Also, a lot of the criticism is given with the eyes of 21st century morality; we have to remember that the scientists who made decisions which now seem unethical did not have the luxury of hindsight that we do. I don’t wish to suggest that there are no remaining issues in science research, or ethical problems to iron out, but at times it felt that Skloot was giving a slightly biased view.

Nonetheless, any flaws that may exist did not detract from my enjoyment of the book. I have to say that I found ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ engaging, interesting and persistently thought-provoking. The story of HeLa cells is one of great importance to those working with, or studying science – but also to anyone interested in any scientific discipline. I highly recommend the book as there is much for scientists and non-scientists alike to enjoy.

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