The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Random House 2010 – It’s odd how the differences between one’s children manifest themselves. Each Christmas, for instance, I receive books from my DDD (dearest darling daughter) and my NOS (number one son). My DDD is attracted to fiction, especially fantasy, while my NOS is clearly a non-fiction aficionado who prefers listening to podcasts rather than sullying his hands by holding a book. He insists it’s more efficient listening to podcasts while accomplishing other tasks. Like the White Rabbit of ‘Alice’ fame, his mantra is, “No time, no time!” and it was he that insisted on my adding a ‘Too Long: Didn’t Read’ (TL:DR) caption at the end of my blogs. He humors my penchant for ‘real’ books by providing some as gifts at the festive season. ‘The Emperor of All Maladies’ (see review of March 18) was one of his choices and ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ is the second. As it happens, the two books are very complimentary, especially in understanding how cancer cell research contributes to the fight against cancer.
If you’re like me you might come to Skloot’s book having never heard of Henrietta Lacks. She was a black woman born in Virginia in 1920 who led an unremarkable life in chronic poverty. She left several young children behind when she died in 1951 from an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Despite a short life compromised by her illness, limited opportunities and constrained circumstances, Ms. Lacks made a contribution to science that was unparalleled in cancer research.
When scientists began to posit that a cure for cancer might be found at the molecular level, there was a focus on cell research, genomes and DNA. One of the early research goals was to isolate cancer cells and grow them in a laboratory setting. Having an unending supply of cancer cells would give scientists the ability to test thousands of potential treatments without the need for thousands of patients willing to be used as guinea pigs.
Unfortunately, growing cancer cells in a lab proved to be an elusive goal. Cancer cells grew in unbounded numbers within a patient, but when they were removed from their human host, they all died. And then Ms. Lacks came to the John Hopkins Hospital with cancer. Like many patients, her cancer cells were harvested and an attempt was made to grow them in a Hopkins’ laboratory. Unlike every other cancer sample up to then, Ms. Lacks’ cells multiplied by the millions, billions and trillions. The cells were named HeLa and were eventually distributed to medical research facilities around the world. They proved invaluable in the fight against cancer and remain so to this day.
Skloot explains the importance of the HeLa cells to cancer research but the strength of the book lies in her focus. It isn’t the Hela cells that drive the book, but Skloot’s desire to delve into the life of Henrietta Lacks and her family. It’s a moving account that reveals some appalling truths about what it meant to be poor, black and sick in America from the middle half of the twentieth century and into more contemporary times.
Skloot also uses the Lacks family’s experiences to highlight any number of ethical considerations that arose as cancer research forged into uncharted territories. Her account will leave little doubt that the 1950’s might be characterized as a ‘dark age’ in medical research morals. While things have improved somewhat since the 1950’s it is clear that there are ethical and legal questions that remain unresolved to this day. Skloot’s book is a wonderfully compelling, layered and ultimately human story of one black woman, her family and the tragedy of poverty intersecting with a billion dollar pharmaceutical/research industry.
TL:DR – HeLa cells are still reproducing and there’s more than enough at this point to circle the globe – all from a poor black woman who died in 1951 – her claim to immortality.