The Im­mor­tal Life of Hen­ri­etta Lacks

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Lau­rel Glad­den

by Re­becca Sk­loot, Crown/Ran­dom House, 369 pages

At some point in your life, a doc­tor has prob­a­bly drawn some of your blood or re­moved a mole, your ton­sils, or your ap­pen­dix. Those pro­ce­dures are sim­ple enough, and they are usu­ally in­tended to make sure you’re in the best of health for as long as pos­si­ble.

What you might not know is that blood or cells re­main­ing from those pro­ce­dures are of­ten stored in labs, hos­pi­tals, and other fa­cil­i­ties and could be used in re­search and drug de­vel­op­ment. Ac­cord­ing to jour­nal­ist Re­becca Sk­loot, “When tis­sues are re­moved from your body, with or without your con­sent, any claim you might have had to own­ing them van­ishes. … Any­one can take your garbage and sell it.” Sk­loot knows this be­cause, for her first book, she delved into the per­sonal and med­i­cal his­tory of a woman named Hen­ri­etta Lacks.

In 1951, Lacks, a poor 30-year-old African Amer­i­can woman liv­ing in Mary­land, was di­ag­nosed with cer­vi­cal can­cer at Johns Hop­kins Hospi­tal — at the time, the only hospi­tal in the area that treated African Amer­i­cans. Though her doc­tors never told her they wanted to col­lect tis­sue sam­ples or asked for her per­mis­sion to do so, dur­ing one of her ra­di­a­tion treat­ments, a sur­geon shaved two dime-sized sam­ples from her cervix.

Lacks died in Oc­to­ber 1951, and her sur­geon sent her tis­sue sam­ples to Dr. Ge­orge Gey, who for years had been at­tempt­ing to grow hu­man cells out­side the body. Gey quickly dis­cov­ered that the can­cer­ous cells did some­thing no other cells had done be­fore — they sur­vived, thrived, and grew vig­or­ously in cul­ture. Since then, th­ese cells — called HeLa, from the first two let­ters of Lacks’ first and last names — have been widely cul­tured and dis­trib­uted and are com­monly used in labs around the world.

As it turned out, th­ese “im­mor­tal” cells would also change the face of sci­ence and medicine. Jonas Salk used them to de­velop and test his po­lio vac­cine. They con­trib­uted to the cre­ation of drugs used to treat leukemia, the flu, he­mo­philia, her­pes, Parkin­son’s dis­ease, and can­cer. To help un­der­stand the ef­fect of nu­clear bombs and zero grav­ity, HeLa cells were ex­posed to ra­di­a­tion and were launched into space. Be­cause of HeLa cells, we know that nor­mal hu­man cells have 46 chro­mo­somes.

But Lacks didn’t con­sent to pro­vid­ing those sam­ples, and for decades, mem­bers of her fam­ily didn’t know her cells were still alive and be­ing used in re­search. While Lacks’ fam­ily was liv­ing in poverty and un­able to af­ford health­care or in­sur­ance, her cells had launched a multi­bil­lion- dol­lar in­dus­try. Sk­loot digs deep into this com­pli­cated tale.

Don’t let the fact that Sk­loot is a “sci­ence writer” scare you off. She does much more than rat­tle off jar­gon and dry facts and statis­tics. The

Im­mor­tal Life of Hen­ri­etta Lacks is a bi­og­ra­phy; a com­plex, com­pelling his­tory of racism, poverty, medicine, and ethics in Amer­ica; and an en­gag­ing work of non­fic­tion with the turns and pac­ing of a novel.

Sk­loot’s ded­i­ca­tion to her sub­ject is ad­mirable. She spent more than a decade re­search­ing and writ­ing the book, fi­nanc­ing her work us­ing credit cards and stu­dent loans. For a year, Lacks’ fam­ily re­fused to speak with her, but Sk­loot’s sen­si­tive per­sis­tence paid off. She tried to learn as much as pos­si­ble about Lacks, her fam­ily, and her cells; and her clear, vivid prose takes us along for the ride, through the his­tory of mod­ern medicine and bioethics — in­clud­ing the Tuskegee syphilis study — and to Johns Hop­kins’ labs. We also visit the small to­bacco-farm­ing vil­lage where Lacks grew up and is buried in an un­marked grave, eco­nom­i­cally de­pressed ar­eas of Bal­ti­more, and the for­mer Hospi­tal for the Ne­gro In­sane. Through­out it all, Sk­loot re­sists the temp­ta­tion to mo­r­al­ize, let­ting the facts speak — or rather, shout — for them­selves.

Af­ter just a few chap­ters, you will have a hard time not want­ing to en­gage every­one you know in con­ver­sa­tions about bioethics, in­formed con­sent, and “tis­sue rights.” The way I see it, us­ing hu­man cells to ad­vance med­i­cal re­search isn’t in­trin­si­cally bad, so long as doc­tors ask for pa­tients’ con­sent and keep their in­for­ma­tion pri­vate. The prob­lem arises be­cause, as one re­searcher told Sk­loot, “It’s much eas­ier to do sci­ence when you dis­so­ci­ate your ma­te­ri­als from the peo­ple they come from.”

Doc­tors and sci­en­tists should re­mem­ber the thoughts of Gey’s lab as­sis­tant when she saw Lacks’ chipped toe­nail pol­ish dur­ing her au­topsy: “I started imag­in­ing her sit­ting in her bath­room paint­ing those toe­nails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been work­ing with all this time … they came from a live woman.” Pa­tients and donors are hu­man be­ings, not just walk­ing bags of po­ten­tial tis­sue sam­ples — here’s hop­ing we all find copies of The Im­mor­tal Life of Hen­ri­etta Lacks in our doc­tors’ wait­ing rooms.

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