Book Review

Florian Fisch

Rebecca Skloot:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Broadway Books; Reprint edition (March 8, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 9781400052189
ISBN-13: 978-1400052189
ASIN: 1400052181
Price: 9.00 EUR

The Death that Vitalised Science

(above) Henrietta Lacks a few years before her death with husband David; (below) Stained HeLa cells in tissue culture. Photo: Encor Biotech

HeLa cells have been manipulated by thousands of scientists around the world. Few ever thought about where they came from

and even fewer about the circumstances under which they were taken. Now is the time.

“If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons — as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings.”

February 7th, 1951, in the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland. A small tissue sample is taken from a woman. The cells – from a cervical cancer tumour – are cultured in the hospital laboratory, where they divide rapidly and double in quantity every 24 hours. The first human cell line is born. The laboratory assistant names it “HeLa”, after the cancer patient Henrietta Lacks.

Lacks dies eight months afterwards. Her cells continue to divide.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells Lacks’ story, that of her family and of the HeLa cell line. Skloot’s book is a non-fiction tome written in the style of a novel. She shows how HeLa cells changed the work of biologists and medical scientists forever, fulfilling their need for an immortal human cell culture. She also shows how the situation of Lacks’ family has barely changed in the meantime. They were black and stayed poor. In fact, they didn’t even know for a long time that the cells had been taken.

A non-fiction novel

The non-fiction novel is a gripping account of developments in cancer research, cell cultures and genetics. This development was a steep learning curve for the scientists at the time, just before the double helix was discovered. First they struggled to culture the cells but later on realised that HeLa actually grew so well that it contaminated many other cell lines, undetected, for a long time. The genetic tools to spot the contamination were yet to be developed.

Although the Lacks family has been linked with science since HeLa’s establishment as a standard research tool, their paths only crossed again 22 years later, when scientists were looking for specific genetic markers of HeLa. This encounter was a traumatic one. Suddenly scientists, the press and profiteers were interested in the family. Poorly-educated, they were not able to understand what was going on. They had to learn what cells are and that they can go on living, despite the fact that their mother and cousin was long dead. The disturbance that this caused to the deeply religious family, was greater than the scientists could have imagined. The solution was unorthodox, giving Henrietta Lacks’ son a beautiful photograph of his mother’s chromosomes and showing her daughter the green fluorescing cells. This had an immediate healing effect. Communication is crucial – a lesson for all scientists.

Rebecca Skloot’s first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, was one of the best-selling new books of 2010. Photo: University of Georgia

Times were different in the 1950s. There was only one hospital for many miles that treated black people. Doctors did not consider it necessary to obtain informed consent for treatment, medical trials or tissue sample collection. This went as far as injecting HeLa cells into uninformed leukaemia patients and volunteer prisons inmates. Nowadays, this is inconceivable, of course. However, the question of whether tissue that has been removed from your body belongs to you is still an open debate.

Skloot succeeds in writing in an easy flowing style for all audiences. Laypeople can learn a lot about science through the story of a poor family that tried to get recognition for Henrietta Lacks’ contribution to medical science. Effortlessly they are lead through reams of information about cancer, cells and genes. Scientists have the opportunity to get to know the history of their trade. They learn about the ethical issues surrounding tissue donation, commercialisation and confidentiality that were, and still are, fought out in courts and science committees.

For laypeople and scientists alike

The book is highly readable and entertaining. The chapters are organised in a logical way, jumping backwards and forwards in time without losing the reader. There is even a useful time scale to keep the reader on track. Despite the complex subject, its events and facts are clearly presented. The only difficulty is in remembering the names of family members and their relationships to one another. A family tree would be an improvement to this otherwise wonderful book.

Skloot has put in an immense amount of effort into assembling the details and keeping the original slang of black Baltimore. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a must for all biologists and medical scientists working with her cells. It is a timely reminder to communicate with laypeople and introduce them to the wonders of science.

Letzte Änderungen: 29.07.2013