Why HeLa Cells Are Vital to You

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

Sometimes a book comes along that informs you of something you had no idea existed. Such is Rebecca Skloot’s revelatory story of HeLa cells and the African-American woman from whom they were extracted, Henrietta Lacks. While HeLa surfaced a few times in the news, most notably in a 1978 Rolling Stone article by Michael Rogers, a 1985 book on HeLa cell contamination by Michael Gold (A Conspiracy of Cells: One Woman’s Immortal Legacy and the Medical Scandal It Caused), and a 1997 BBC documentary (The Way of All Flesh, which you can view on YouTube), the existence of HeLa cells, their contribution to medical research, and their continuing extensive use in research, will come as new news, as they did to this reader, to everybody who has yet to read Skloot’s book.

What makes Skloot’s telling of Henrietta Lacks’ life story and her unique cancer cells so remarkable is that the author manages to explain complex scientific concepts in understandable terms and easily digested chunks, introduces readers to the myriad of ethical and legal issues yet to be resolved arising from Lacks’ treatment, and conveys the personal suffering caused to the Lacks family by the uninformed removal and use of the HeLa cells in research worldwide. Regarding the second point about informed consent and usage, readers will find Skloot’s Afterword a concise essay on these issues.

Briefly, researchers had tried for years to grow human cells outside the body without success. Doing so would allow them to experiment on cures and the effect of contaminants on human tissue, something that could not otherwise be done (outside of conducting unscrupulous and illegal travesties that Skloot reminds us took place within vulnerable segments of the population). Also, since cells reproduce rapidly compared to the long human life cycle, they could see and react to the results of their experiments in greatly compressed time.

Then, in the early 1950s, Henrietta Lacks presented herself at Johns Hopkins, where she received a cervical cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment. She died of her cancer on October 4, 1951, at age 31. Even before her death, HeLa cells were discovered and being grown in massive quantities and the practice accelerated over time, all without her knowledge while she lived and without her family’s after her death, and not revealed to them, and then by accident, decades later. These cells proved themselves invaluable in cancer and viral research, in understanding the effects off radiation on human tissue and in the development of the Polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cloning, gene mapping, and more.

Intriguing enough, for certain; however interwoven in the story is a long running bane of American history: racism, and concomitant poverty. While Skloot doesn’t explore the topic in-depth, as it warrants a couple of volumes on its own, she does illustrate how it affected the Lacks family. For example, ever hear of “night doctors” or the mythology of how Johns Hopkins came to be?

All in all, a very strong and informative effort on Skloot’s part and a story once read never forgotten, in particular, the debt of gratitude we all owe to a woman who has not received nearly the recognition she deserves for her contribution to the health of humankind, involuntary though it was. Includes photos, a bibliography, and a helpful index. w/c