The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
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.