There are few things here at Visionlearning that get us more excited than seeing the incorporation of the process and history of science with the practical aspects. That’s why it was so thrilling to read Rebecca Skloot’s new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
If it’s been a long time since you heard the word “HeLa,” here’s a brief reminder. HeLa cells, named after the woman they were taken from (Henrietta Lacks), are used in essentially every form of cell research that has been done since the 1950s. Jonas Salk’s discovery of the polio vaccine, our understanding of the effects of radiation on the human body, current treatments for cancer — none of these would exist if it wasn’t for the existence of Henrietta Lacks. But for as long as we’ve celebrated new discoveries in cell biology and the treatment of disease, rarely does this include the celebration of the woman from whom this immortal cell line came.
That is, until now.
In Skloot’s thorough book, over a decade of research and interviews with the Lacks family, scientists involved in the treatments of Henrietta, and an assortment of professionals at Johns Hopkins culminates in a wonderfully engaging story of Henrietta and her unintentional contribution to science. The text honestly explores the question of ethics in research, how racial segregation impacted treatment, and brings to light a pressing question yet to be solved — What rights do we retain when our body tissues are removed from our body?
It’s difficult reading at times, not because of composition, but because of the reality with which we are confronted. While it wasn’t customary in the 1950s, nor in many instances today, to ask a patient whether their excised tissues can be used in research, Henrietta’s case was a bit more extreme. It’s not just that the woman whose aggressive cancer cells continue to aid science 60 years after her death was never asked to donate tissue for research. Her family was never asked if researchers could take samples of her cervix once they realized what they’d stumbled upon, nor told after they had done so. And the affronts and exploitation continued well into the new millennium, with the family being asked to donate blood samples and given little information as to why. As Skloot shows, it wasn’t until she was well into the research of this book and speaking with the family that they even understood what was so important about Henrietta’s cells.
Alongside the history of the Lacks family, we get a well-written explanation of the evolution of HeLa’s use. From Gey’s first culture in the lab, to the sharing of HeLa cells with other researchers, to the multi-million dollar cell culturing businesses that grew out of that initial culture, we see how important ethics, creativity, communication, and proper laboratory techniques are to the world of scientific research.
Skloot’s profile of the Lacks family and use of HeLa cells in research is a must read for everyone. It’s not just for those interested in understanding the process and history of cell biology and disease research, but for anyone who has every wondered about the discoveries in medicine that have helped to prolong life and cure once-deadly diseases. Without Henrietta Lacks, we would certainly be living in a very different world.
Interested in seeing more about this book? Click here: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Written by Heather Falconer
Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics from research writing to marine biology in the public and private educational sectors.