Science journalist Rebecca Skloot unravels the story behind the first immortal human cells, known by the code name HeLa. Skloot’s fascination with these cells began as a teen in a biology class when her professor mentioned that what scientists know about cancer cells came from studying the cells of a woman named Henrietta Lacks. He went on to state that Henrietta died from an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951. Without Henrietta’s knowledge or consent, samples of her tumor were cultured. Although scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in order to study them, they had had no luck --- but Henrietta’s cancer cells not only lived, they reproduced rapidly. HeLa cells continued to reproduce, dividing constantly and indefinitely; hence, they are “immortal.”
Henrietta’s cells are still reproducing. They are bought and sold to labs all over the world by the billions. It is said that if one were to weigh all of Henrietta’s cells that have been grown since she died, the total would be a staggering 50 million metric tons. These immortal cells have been one of the most important innovations for modern science and medicine because scientists can study the effects of experiments they cannot perform on living people. HeLa cells were onboard during the first space mission so scientists could study what happens to human cells in space. Because of HeLa cells, scientists know the effects an atom bomb has on human tissue. Henrietta’s cells were also instrumental in developing the vaccine for polio. They have been the cells used in studies for in vitro fertilization, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, and much, much more.
Skloot’s teacher off-handedly mentioned that Henrietta was African-American. But Skloot’s questioning about her personal life met a dead end, and the consequent researching revealed nothing about her. She became obsessed with Henrietta, and her fascination turned into a passion that she pursued for 10 years in order to write this book.
One of Skloot’s driving questions was about Henrietta’s family: Did she have children? Did they know about their mother’s cells and their contribution to science? She not only learns the answers to these questions, she also forms a relationship with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah. Along the way, we learn about Henrietta’s life. As part of a poor tobacco farm family, young Henrietta lived with her grandfather after her parents died. She and the rest of the family worked the same tobacco fields that their ancestors worked as slaves. After marrying her cousin, David, Henrietta’s life continued to be difficult. She had her first child when she was barely 14. The second child she bore had developmental challenges and was reluctantly institutionalized. Despite her hard life, the people who knew Henrietta remembered her as beautiful, outgoing and hospitable.
As Skloot skillfully weaves together the stories of Henrietta, the evolution of her immortal cells and the reactions of her family members, readers will find themselves entranced. Exploring the topic of scientific exploitation --- in which her cells have been used and sold without family knowledge or consent --- leads to a description of the historical use of African-American research subjects and to a discussion of the policies and ethics governing the use of patients’ tissues. During the course of the book, we travel with the writer to Henrietta’s unmarked grave, to scientific laboratories, and to a church service. We are present during a touching scene in which two of Henrietta’s children examine HeLa cells.
Interspersing these human elements with scientific explanations, Skloot has fashioned a compelling multi-layered tale that will keep readers unable to resist turning pages until they reach the end.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 22, 2011