The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot –book review

I enjoyed reading this dramatic account of how HeLa cells became the first “immortal” human cells to be grown in culture. HeLa cells were crucial in the development of the polio vaccine and the HPV vaccine. They were key to the development of IVF and cloning. They were also used during nuclear testing… and they were even sent to the moon!

 

But behind the acronym HeLa stands a real human being: Henrietta Lacks. A black woman born in Virginia in 1920, Lacks died of cervical cancer at the age of 31, orphaning her 5 children. The cancer spread all over her body at an astonishing rate. HeLa cells are Henrietta Lacks’s cancer cells, sampled in 1951, and still alive today.

 

Collecting samples from a living human being in the 1950s was an easy business. There were no consent forms. There were restrictions if it came to collecting samples from a dead body, but for living human beings, there were none. Nobody imagined that there could be a commercial value attached to human cells. But HeLa cells were soon being sold to scientists all over the world. Meanwhile, Henrietta Lacks’s family could not afford health insurance.

 

Rebecca Skloot’s book investigates the strange disparity between the scientific and commercial success of HeLa and the poverty of Henrietta Lacks’s descendants. It is a deeply personal account of a slowly developing friendship between the journalist and Lacks’s daughter, Deborah, who is deeply skeptical about what is being done to her mother’s cells. Can they feel pain? Does it mean that scientists will one day be able to clone her mother? And these are not the only questions Deborah wants answered – what happened to her sister, who was kept in a mental institution for black patients and died when she was 14?

 

This book is a heartbreaking read, for many reasons. It goes through many of history of medicine’s darkest moments: unauthorized medical trials on black syphilitic patients, causing many to die unnecessarily, and unauthorized experiments on black patients in mental institutions. This is not simply the story of one woman’s cells – the book deals with a history of development both of medical treatments and of medical ethics. Worth a read.

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