The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot
Crown: 330 pages; $26
By Sarah Sacha Dollacker
When Henrietta Lacks, a descendant of Virginia tobacco sharecroppers, was treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins in the early 1950s, she had no idea that part of her would stay in a medical lab long after her death.
Scientists had been working feverishly to keep human cells alive for study. They had successfully harvested cells and had moderate success keeping them alive for short periods, but they had not discovered a cell line robust enough to stay alive for extensive study.
Henrietta’s cells, scraped from a malignant tumor during surgery, quickly proved to be the cells science was desperately seeking. They not only lived longer than any other previously harvested human cells, but they also heartily multiplied, making them ideal for unlimited production.
These cells could be grown in labs and sent to scientists all over the world — and they were. Henrietta’s cells, renamed HeLa, would provide science with the canvas for a number of studies, such as research for the polio vaccine and cloning.
Unfortunately, Henrietta died with no knowledge of her contribution to science, and her family, living in poverty in Baltimore, had no idea either — until many years later.
Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” investigates the human story of HeLa and plunges to the heart of a debate in the scientific community: Who has rights to a person’s cells after they have been removed from the body?
When Henrietta’s family eventually found out about their mother’s contribution to science, they were thrilled, but mystified as to why they had been kept in the dark.
By this time, the production of HeLa cells was a multimillion-dollar industry, but Henrietta’s relatives were often unable to afford their own medical care. This irony was not lost on them, and they struggled to come to terms with the suspicion that the medical community had exploited them.
Skloot’s portrayal does not negate this view, as she positions the treatment of Henrietta’s cells in the context of the Tuskegee trials, in which participants were denied treatment for syphilis for years, and of fears of “night doctors” in the African-American community.
Yet the implication that human cell research is similar to research done on a human body may be presented with too heavy a hand.
Is the fact that Henrietta was not asked to sign a release form — few patients were, in her day — the same type of exploitation the men suffered at Tuskegee? Skloot suggests it might be and that whenever a person’s body, or part of it, is used by science without the subject’s knowledge and permission, an abuse has been committed.
Henrietta’s family have clearly been deeply affected by the treatment of their mother’s cells. The latter half of Skloot’s exploration follows Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, on her journey to make sense of what happened to her mother and her cells.
It is an emotional quest, one that Skloot handles with delicacy and understanding, but as she delves deeper into the Lackses’ experience, the narrative begins to change. The scientific intensity of the opening chapters evolves into a tale of one family’s grief.
Henrietta’s family know little of cellular biology, so they explain the significance of their mother’s contribution through a language that makes sense to them, religion.
According to Deborah, Henrietta is like an omniscient angel curing cancer and creating vaccines. Though it is explained to them that the existing HeLa cells are so far removed from Henrietta as to be completely different, they still choose to believe their mother is part of everything that is HeLa.
This touching perspective helps to clarify why after so many years the family would still be upset.
Skloot’s exploration of the tremendous HeLa cell line is more than a history book, scientific expose or family memoir. Her perceptive glimpse into the intersection where science meets society and where the common good meets individual need reveals a complex tangle of medical advancement and human pathos that undergirds many conversations in the scientific community today.
Her final question, do we own our own cells, is fundamental, and Skloot presents a portrait of triumph and sadness that asks us to assess how to answer it.