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Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

17 January 2011

By Rose Palmer

Appeared in BioNews 591

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

Published by Pan Macmillan

ISBN-10: 0330533444, ISBN-13: 978-0330533447

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' by Rebecca Skloot


This is an extraordinary book about a woman who died on 4 October 1951, but whose legacy will continue exponentially. Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer who died, aged only 31, in the 'coloured ward' of John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, after a ferocious case of cancer consumed her body. Beloved by her husband and five children, Henrietta was remembered as pretty, caring and vivacious. But despite her premature death, she left something behind- a small piece of tissue taken from a tumour on her cervix. These cells, known later by their generic name of HeLa, have become Henrietta's legacy.

Before Lacks died, unbeknown to her, a section of her tumour was sent to George Gey, head of tissue culture research at Hopkins. Before Henrietta's tissue arrived in the lab, he had spent three decades unsuccessfully trying to grow malignant cells outside the body. His assistant expected Henrietta's cells to simply die like all the others: 'But they didn't. They kept growing like nothing anyone had seen, doubling their numbers every twenty-four hours, stacking hundreds on top of hundreds, accumulating by the millions'.

Gey's extraordinary Hela cells became a scientific sensation. As Henrietta's family struggled over the years to come to terms with their loss, her seemingly immortal cells were gaining celebrity status amongst the scientific community. They were distributed to labs all over the world for tissue research, initially for free but later for profit. They became an unparalleled tool; shot into space, and used in research into the polio vaccine, AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) studies and the effects of atomic warfare. In total, more than 50 million tonnes of Henrietta's cells have been grown since she died.

But as HeLa's fame grew, the woman that they came from was forgotten. Author Rebecca Skloot brings to life the story of Henrietta Lacks not just as the source of this incredible cell line, but as a complex and fascinating woman with a family and a history.

Initially, Henrietta's children struggled to make sense of their mother's unwitting contribution, only discovering, 20 years later, that her cells had even been taken. Doctors in hospitals in the 1950's frequently practiced what they termed 'benevolent deception', withholding fundamental information, especially from black patients.

The book's deftly woven narrative allows the reader to understand the Lacks family's conflicted response to this discovery- in turn, confusion, resentment and pride. Most of all, however, Skloot discovers that the Lacks family were simply looking for the truth about what happened to their mother's cells and what they will continue to be used for.

Skloot highlights how, during a dark period in America's medical history, the treatment of Henrietta and her family was typical for the time. African Americans were routinely used for testing new drugs. Since the 1800s black oral history has been rife with terrifying stories of 'night doctors', rumoured to kidnap black people to use in their research. Real life horror stories from the time include the Tuskegee project, which allowed black men to die from syphilis so that the development of the disease could be studied, as well as documented cases of prisoners and cancer patients consenting to research without being told that cancer cells would be injected into their bodies.

The book raises the fundamental dilemma of whether patients whose tissue is taken can claim ownership of their cells. What rights do people have over the samples that have been taken from them? How is the future progress of science to be reconciled with the rights of individuals? Current legislation leans towards the drugs companies and the scientists. Skloot's narrative demonstrates the difficulties researchers would have if individuals owned the rights to their tissues. Yet Skloot also highlights how manifestly unfair it seems, that, despite the contribution of HeLa cells, the impoverished Lacks family still struggles to pay for medical insurance.

This book, which could be classed as a long piece of investigative journalism, is not just about about medicine and science, but it is also about race, ethics, injustice and even spirituality. This delicate and thought-provoking biography of Henrietta Lacks contextualises tissue donation and research, opening the subject up to a wider audience; and, now that the book has been propelled into best-seller lists, Henrietta is finally getting the recognition she deserves.


Buy The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks from Amazon UK.

SOURCES & REFERENCES

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