Chances are, if you’ve ever studied biology, you’ve heard of HeLa cells. If you haven’t, well… let me enlighten you a little! HeLa cells are known as an ‘immortal’ cell line because they grow indefinitely and can be divided up and frozen for decades at a time amongst scientists for study. So basically, if you feed them? They will grow.
Pretty amazing, right? The thing is, while a lot of people have heard of HeLa cells and tons of scientists have utilized them (Jonas Salk, for one), very little was known about their origins for a very long time. Basically, we knew the cells came from the cervix of an African American woman during the ‘50s, but text books had the “donor” listed with a variety of names from Henrietta Lacks to Helen Lane to Helen Larson, all with a variety of ages.
The fact of the matter is that the real woman whose cervical cells were harvested was, in fact, Henrietta Lacks. Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks finally gives her and her family a voice. A history.
Here’s a great excerpt from the book, one illustrating the importance of Henrietta Lacks and her fantastical cells that I probably didn’t do enough justice in my quickie explanation earlier: “Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.” Yeah. Pretty important stuff. In fact, the importance of these cells can’t be overstated in any way shape or form. They’ve been used to treat and cure hundreds of diseases and cancers, so why is that the children of Henrietta Lacks couldn’t even afford health care? Why is that they’ve never seen a penny or a thank you note?
The author intended to find out why. Rebecca Skloot has poured years of her life and herself into this book, which is completely evident. The story reads like fiction, even the technical parts are spelled out in an interesting way, and we see how Skloot came to be part of the Lacks family’s story and their fight to understand what happened to their mother and her cells.
There are spiritual and ethical questions raised throughout this book and some of the events surrounding the Lacks family are truly harrowing. One part that really stuck with me was learning that by the time the Lacks children finally learned that their mother’s cells were still alive, some twenty years after they were harvested, HeLa had already been to outer space and helped to test the vaccine for polio.
Skloot’s book is a masterpiece, plain and simple. Whether or not cellular biology interests you (I don’t regularly pick up books about it for fun, amazingly), this book tells a story that will tug at the heartstrings and poke everybody’s morality bone. Sure, harvesting cells without the consent of the donor is unethical but 1951 was a very different time and a very different place for an African American woman. Perhaps Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, puts the paradox best. She said, “Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it…[sic]” Which is a good point, of course, helping people is always good. But then she goes on to make an even better point, illustrating said paradox perfectly: “But I won’t lie, I would like to get some health insurance so that I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.[sic]”
Though controversial, there’s no denying how much Henrietta Lacks has contributed to humanity and no counting the amount of lives that her cells have saved. There wouldn’t be enough ‘THANK YOU!’ hugs in the world to express it. If you’re interested and want to learn more, read this book. You will not be disappointed.