“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This is the amazing story of a young African – American woman who became ‘immortal’ after cervical cancer claimed her life in 1951. The cells from her cervix came to be known worldwide as HeLa cells and continued to grow and multiply ad infinitum. They were the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory. They were the first living cells shipped via postal mail. They facilitated the development of the polio vaccine in 1952. They aided cancer research and virology studies, besides cloning and gene mapping. Both Russian and American scientists had managed to grow HeLa in space. But no one had ever heard of the cell donor.

Was Henrietta Lacks really a donor? Was she aware that her cells had been cultured? Poor Henrietta knew only pain and hopelessness. She didn’t know the cells that were killing her by the second were going to live forever.

The author gives us interesting details of the life and family of Henrietta Lacks and brings up interesting questions about medical ethics, informed consent, and donor rights. It was only two decades after her death that Henrietta Lacks was actually named in a publication as the source of the HeLa cells. Only then does the world realize that the cells came from a black woman. Only in 1973 do her children learn that her cells are still alive and multiplying. Only in 1975 do they understand that the cells are being bought and sold and that companies and individuals are earning profits while they themselves can barely afford medical treatment.

Henrietta Lacks, wife of David Lacks and mother of five children, died when she was just over thirty. She had been born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia in 1920. Her mother had died in childbirth when Loretta was only four years old. No one knows how or when Loretta became Henrietta. She was brought up by her grandfather, a poor tobacco farmer. She married her first cousin when she was twenty. By then the couple already had two children. It is a tragic tale of poverty and the acute deprivations that accompany it. Henrietta fell victim to cervical cancer, suffered acute distress, both physical and mental, and finally succumbed.

The book is as much about the life and journey of HeLa cells as it is about Henrietta Lacks and her family. You have to be greatly interested in science, anatomy, genetics and medicine to really enjoy the book. It is extensively researched, is acclaimed as a New York Times bestseller, and the subject is fascinating. Yet it is hard to sift through the scientific facts and get a grip on the story. The book unearths some unusual facts that most of us are unlikely to have heard of. “When the first humans went into orbit, Henrietta’s cells went with them so researchers could study the effects of space travel, as well as the nutritional needs of cells in space, and how cancerous and non-cancerous cells responded differently to zero gravity. What they found was disturbing: in mission after mission, noncancerous cells grew normally in orbit, but HeLa became more powerful, dividing faster with each trip.”

The sad part is that none of Henrietta’s children were able to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation that marked their mother’s life. The paths trodden by the five children are all too predictable, given the circumstances of their birth and family history and the reader can’t help sympathizing with them. What became of Elsie, the first daughter who was committed to a mental institution while still a child, is particularly heart-rending. Deborah, the younger daughter learns of her existence decades after Elsie’s death. Neither their father nor their eldest brother, Lawrence, had ever mentioned her.

Dr. George Gey was the man who cultured the first HeLa cells. This was at John Hopkins. He gave them away to anyone who asked for them. He had no profit motive. But soon the distribution of HeLa cells became commercialized and a multi-million dollar industry was born. Samuel Reader, the owner of Microbiological Associates was first to make big money out of this. But it was John Hopkins that Henrietta’s children were wary of. The author traces the history of this world renowned institution which makes interesting reading. “John Hopkins was born on a tobacco plantation in Maryland where his father later freed his slaves nearly sixty years before Emancipation. Hopkins made millions working as a banker and grocer, and selling his won brand of whiskey, but he never married and had no children. So in 1873, not long before his death, he donated $7 million to start a medical school and charity hospital.” And the rest, as we know, is history.

The author informs us that, “A search of the US Patent and Trademark Office database turns up more than seventeen thousand patents involving HeLa cells.” The 1980 Supreme Court decision in the case of Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, who had been denied a patent for a genetically engineered bacterium that could consume oil and help clean up oil spills was an interesting piece of information.

Overall Assessment: Interesting, though not an easy read.

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Year of Publication: 2010

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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