Nonfiction review: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot
HeLa cells are an invaluable tool for biomedical researchers (like fruit flies or lab rats), having been used in the development of the polio vaccine and cloning, and in cancer and other disease research. HeLa cells are special because they are ‘immortal’, that is, they can divide a seemingly unlimited number of times (normal human cells die out after a while). This makes them ideal for research applications. Thousands upon thousands of studies have used HeLa cells to advance our understanding of cellular biology. However, there is a shadow in the history of this discovery. The cells had been taken from the tumor of a woman called Henrietta Lacks, who eventually died of the aggressive cancer. But neither she nor her family ever saw a cent from all of the patents and biomedical advancements that had come from HeLa cell research. In fact, they never even knew her cells had been taken! This book is the story of discovery of Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells and the journey toward acknowledging her contribution to modern medical science.
As a biologist, this book was both fascinating and horrifying to read. I couldn’t believe how people used to be treated by doctors (and probably still are) and the lack of informed consent about anything. I was also outraged over the massively lucrative business of culturing HeLa cells that had developed while Henrietta Lacks’ family never saw compensation. There was a lot of outrage in general, reading this book, to be honest. Henrietta Lacks was a woman of color who died in 1951, so you can imagine the part race played in her story. Yeah, it’ll get your hackles up.
However, the story is a very interesting read. I had not know the story behind HeLa cells, and I’m very glad that I read this book. I don’t think we should ever forget the contributions people make to science, particularly women, and particularly women of color. Even though she had not knowingly donated her cells, and even though the cancer had killed her, we would not be where we are today without her immortal cells. It is not exaggeration to say that thousands (perhaps millions) or lived have been saved by Henrietta Lacks’ cells. Just considering the polio vaccine that had been developed using her cell line, the impact is massive.
A very interesting, if occasionally infuriating, read. Required for anyone studying biology.
Potentially disturbing descriptions of medical practices.