Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Publisher: Crown; 1 edition (February 2, 2010)
Review source: publisher
The more Deborah struggled to understand her mother’s cells, the more HeLa research terrified her. When she saw a Newsweek article called PEOPLE-PLANTS that said scientists had crossed Henrietta Lacks’s cells with tobacco cells, Deborah thought they’d created a human-plant monster that was half her mother, half tobacco. When she found out scientists had been using HeLa cells to study viruses like AIDS and Ebola, Deborah imagined her mother eternally suffering the symptoms of each disease: bone-crushing pain, bleeding eyes, suffocation. And she was horrified by reports of a “psychic healer” who, while conducting research into whether spiritual healing could cure cancer, attempted to kill HeLa cells by a laying on of hands.
In this fascinating and engrossing book, science writer Rebecca Skloot researches the life and family of Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cancerous cervical cells became HeLa cells. These cells have been used worldwide for a bevy of medical research and medical advances. HeLa cells are unique and special because they easily divide and multiply allowing their immortality. The contribution of HeLa cells to science is profound and astounding. The sad part is that no one knew that Henrietta’s cells held such importance, particularly her family and her only daughter, Deborah. Skloot set out to change all that by writing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The resulting biography is a page-turner about one unsuspecting woman, her family, and the impact that HeLa cells have had throughout the world.
Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s Disease; and they’ve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers. Their chromosomes and proteins have been studied with such detail and precision that scientists know their every quirk. Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta’s cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse.
Throughout The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot takes us along on her journey which turns out to be as much a personal journey as a scientific quest. She becomes friends with the Lacks family and particularly close to Deborah. It all begins where Henrietta died: Johns Hopkins Hospital. George Gey, head of tissue culture research, and his wife Margaret had spent three decades attempting to grow malignant cells outside the body in order to use them for cancer research. With Henrietta’s cells, the Geys had found HeLa, the first immortal human cells [the cells would continuously divide from one tissue sample and keep replenishing themselves].
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks explains the science behind the HeLa cells, the stories of many of the scientists involved in the discovery of the cells and the subsequent use of the cells in various experiments. As a science journalist, Skloot is able to take the most complicated concepts and describe them in a reader-friendly way. Skloot also delves into the Lacks family and the life of Henrietta Lacks which provides a human side to this remarkable story. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks remains highly readable and truly enjoyable from the first page to the last.
Some facts I learned in this book:
HeLa cells would weight an estimated 50 million metric tons if all cells ever grown were placed on a scale [one cell weighs almost nothing].
In 1941, Greek researcher George Papanicolaou developed the Pap smear.
The Pap smear has the potential to decrease the death rate from cervical cancer by 70% or more.
In 1973, a very wealthy Johns Hopkins donated $7 million to establish a medical school and charity hospital. The purpose of the Hopkins Hospital was to help anyone who couldn’t get adequate medical care. Hopkins was born on a tobacco plantation and his father freed his slaves 60 years before the Emancipation.
Black corpses were exhumed from graves in the 1900s for the purpose of autopsies and research.
The NIH didn’t establish informed consent and approval guidelines until 1966 and informed consent became law in 1971.
Johns Hopkins Hospital and George Gey did not receive any compensation for HeLa cells.
Two biotech companies, Microbiological Associates [later re-named Invitrogen] and The American Type Culture Collection both sell vials of HeLa for anywhere from $100- $10,000.
In 1984, Harald zur Hausen, a German virologist, discovered a new strain of a sexually transmitted virus called Human Papilloma Virus 18 [HPV-18], a particularly virulent strain. When he requested a sample of Henrietta’s biopsy, he found that she had been infected with multiple copies of HPV-18.
There are more than 100 strains of HPV in existence. 13 of the strains cause cervical, anal, oral, and penile cancer. Today, 90% of all sexually active adults become infected with at least one type of strain.