Rating: 4 Stars
The writing of ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ was a labor of many years making for author, Rebecca Skloot. Her curiosity about her subject was awakened when she was still a teenager in science class, and never quite faded away even in adulthood. The actual process of gathering material and writing took a decade of extensive research and exhaustive interviews. The end result is a deeply affecting consideration of the combined ingenuity of many scientific minds; the ethics concerning tissue ownership and research; and the story of a woman, her family, and her community.
A thirty-one year old African-American woman called Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951. Despite her death, cancer cells harvested from the tumor in her cervix continued to produce an entire generation of new cells every 24 hours. These cells were named HeLa after the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks first and last names. The first human cells to be generated in a laboratory, they earned the label ‘immortal’, because they were all descended from one original sample that produced a continually dividing line of cells. Due to her unknowing gift, Henrietta Lacks made possible some of the most vital medical and scientific advances of the past century and the present.
“The reason Henrietta’s cells were so precious was because they allowed scientists to perform experiments that would have been impossible with a living human. They cut HeLa cells apart and exposed them to endless toxins, radiation, and infections. They bombarded them with drugs hoping to find one that would kill malignant cells without destroying normal ones…If the cells died in the process, it didn’t matter – scientists could just go back to their eternally growing HeLa stock and start over again.”
In one way or another, HeLa can be credited with the development of the polio vaccine, the standardization of the field of tissue culture, cellular cloning, mapping of the human genome, and various medicines to treat cancer, blood-pressure, and depression. This list doesn’t, in fact, begin to cover the immeasurable boon the HeLa cells have been to humanity.
Skloot’s excellent investigative research does more than carefully piece together the historical evidence leading up to medicine’s great breakthroughs. She restores to Henrietta Lacks the one thing the zealous minded scientists took away – her humanity. There is something oddly ironic, yet moving in that this simple, little-educated mother of five should have been the cause of such mind-boggling technical advances. It would appear that the world benefited by the suffering that ravaged her last few months of life. To the ones she left behind however, especially her five children, there was no reprieve from their acute loss; a loss which was compounded years later by the discovery that their mother’s cells were still ‘living’ in a way that they found hard to understand. Just as hard for them to understand was why Henrietta Lacks legal heirs were struggling to pay their medical bills while pharmaceutical companies continued to profit from their mother’s death.
The reasons were many and complex, but they lead to the discussion about tissue study and proprietorship that is at the heart of the book, and the moral, academic and ethical considerations that are weighed in the balance in the raging dispute between medical research and patient rights. Skloot raises a lot of difficult questions, but apparently there are no easy answers. However, there is too much at stake on either side to ignore this troubling and thought-provoking debate.