Monday, 12 August 2013

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

Reviewed by Rich Billington

When people talk about the extraordinary contributions made to science, names like Darwin, Einstein or Crick and Watson would probably be the first to pop in to your head. Few people have even heard of Henrietta Lacks (indeed many might be more familiar with her imposed pseudonym, Helen Lane) but her contribution to cell biology is, I think it is fair to say, immeasurable. This book is somewhat of a eulogy to her.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American tobacco farmer who died of cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 31. Unbeknown to her or her family, a small sample of her tumour was removed and given to George Gey at the tissue culture lab at Johns Hopkins. Her tumour was the first whose cells could be kept replicating indefinitely in the lab and was the beginning of cell culture. Most people are probably more familiar with the cell line derived from her tumour, HeLa cells, than the story behind the person.

In this book, author Rebecca Skloot set out on a journey of several years to find out about the woman whose cells became so famous. She became very close to the Lacks family over that time and they confided in her to tell the story of Henrietta and also how their family had been treated by science. Despite HeLa cells having been commercialised, the family received no money and have repeatedly been misled by the scientific hierarchy.

This book is not really about science, although there is obviously a lot of explanation of HeLa cells. In my view, it is more a book about ethics and I believe that anyone who works with any type of cell culture or patient samples should read it as it is thought provoking and allows you to reflect on the fact that behind every sample or cell line, there is a story of a person and the family of that person, something which perhaps escapes those of us who do not have direct patient contact. The book also gives a rather chilling account of how patients (particularly those of non-Caucasian backgrounds) were treated in the US in the 1950s and it is interesting to compare the difference in mentality between the ethical considerations of 60 years ago and those that we use now.

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