Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (non-fiction)

Shhh… another Sneak-In Saturday. This book zoomed and leaped onto award and bestseller lists before I could get it here, but you really must read it.

The idea of “informed medical consent” was rather different sixty years ago, as were medical research techniques.

Henrietta Lacks thought that she was only being treated for cervical cancer.
She had no idea that doctors had taken cell samples for later use.
And the rest is medical history…

Book info: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks / Rebecca Skloot. Random House, 2010 (hardback), 2011 (paperback) [author’s website] [publisher site] [book trailer]

Recommendation: When Henrietta Lacks was treated for cancer in the “colored” ward of the hospital in 1951, doctors took cell samples for research without telling her. In the laboratory, those cells became the first self-sustaining (“immortal”) human cells, enabling countless experiments with medicines and therapies.

The Johns Hopkins Hospital researchers shared those HeLa cells with other scientists, who used them to develop vaccines against polio, catalog the effects of radiation on humans, and make advances toward in vitro fertilization and gene mapping. Eventually, HeLa cells were grown in medical factories, becoming a multimillion dollar industry as researchers worldwide used them.

Yet Henrietta’s family didn’t know that her cells were being used for anything; they could only grieve at her death, as she left behind a large African American family, moved not so long before from their small tobacco farm in Virginia to work in Baltimore for better wages.

More than 20 years after HeLa began growing in the lab, Henrietta’s children learned that some part of their mother was still alive. Poorly educated, they thought perhaps that scientists could bring their mother back to life or that the HeLa cells sent on lunar missions meant that she was now living on the Moon. After those first, confusing interviews in the 1970s, the Lacks family refused to talk to any reporters or researchers.

Finally in the late 1990s, the writer of this book and Henrietta’s youngest daughter began investigating the family’s history and the amazing tale of how HeLa cells enabled so many discoveries in medicine and science.

Did her family ever receive any benefit from Henrietta’s cells? No. Can her descendants afford health insurance today? No. Have the laws changed so that patients have more control over what their cells and tissues are used for? Yes, but…

A fascinating science detective tale threaded with questions of medical ethics and wrapped up in family history, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reminds us of the human side of scientific advancement – an award-winning story, well-told.

(One of 5,000 books recommended on Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

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