Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

January 29, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [cover]Insightful and poignant, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks takes an unflinching look at the history of the first “immortal” human cell line, the scientists involved in its discovery, the woman whose cells were used, and the impact it has since had on her family. This book not only recounts an incredible, true story but also engages the reader to consider the ethics of cell and tissue donation. Click below to read the full review.

Henrietta Lacks’ immortality began with a tumor biopsy in the public “colored” wards at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer — a disease which would soon claim her life — but the cells collected by her doctor would have a very different story.

Scientists had been trying for decades to get human cells to survive more than a few days outside of the body. The cells from Henrietta Lacks’ cancer, labeled “HeLa” after the first two letters in her name, were the first ones found that continued to divide and thrive in culture. Researchers were able to use HeLa cells to improve their understanding of human biology, test hypotheses about diseases, and develop treatments and vaccines that have literally saved millions of lives. They also spawned a multi-million dollar industry dealing in human cells and tissues.

Fascinated by these cells and the woman behind them, author Rebecca Skloot spent years researching HeLa and interviewing the individuals connected both professionally and biologically to them. Throughout The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot draws out important parallels and ironies that are present in the story that emerges. It is an unvarnished look at the history of medical progress that, in many cases, glossed over social disparities and ethical misgivings, many with which we are still wrestling today.

Unfortunately, Henrietta’s family was not told that her cells were used for research until decades after the fact, and they have never received financial compensation from the HeLa cell line. Learning that pieces of their mother were being grown, cloned, examined, and manipulated in laboratories around the world seemed to confirm their worst fears about medical exploitation.

While it is easy to look back and condemn the doctors for using patients’ cells for research (and later, profit) without consent, no such professional or legal standards existed in the 1950s. Likewise, some contend that the Lacks children have no claim to the scientific advances that others made from studying HeLa cells, but this ignores the fact that HeLa is mainly valuable because it came from a human patient, their mother, Henrietta.

Skloot skillfully maintains these tensions throughout the book, attempting to tell a story that is not squarely on one side or the other. In the end, the reader is left with the sense that reforming the system is both possible and necessary. The solutions, however, are not as straightforward as they first may seem, and it will take concerted effort and a great deal of public discourse to agree on a way forward.

As of 2011, there is still a lack of agreement on the best or most ethical approach to cell and tissue donation. Is biological material the “property” of the donor, or does a patient give up any rights to claim ownership or ask for privacy once the specimen is removed from his/her body? This is where books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks can be particularly helpful. By providing a compelling story of how one woman’s cells affected so many lives, it is easier to think through the effects of cell and tissue donation, which can inform our ethics and policies. It is my hope that more people will understand what is at stake, and as a result join the public debate about these personal and complex issues.

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