The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot Henrietta Lacks was a poor tobacco farmer who died of cancer in the “coloured ward” of John Hopkins in the 1950’s. Unknown to Henrietta, during the course of routine tests, cells were taken from her and grown in a lab. Labelled HeLa they were the first cells to have been successfully grown and kept “alive”. These cells have since been reproduced and used for testing to this day. If someone took all HeLa cells grown they would weigh “more than 50 million metric tons”. “HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.”

Ms. Skloot takes us on a unique journey from the harvesting of the cells to their modern day applications. More intriguing than the science is the journey she makes with Henrietta’s descendants. Henrietta’s family was unaware of the phenomenom of the HeLa cells until 20 years after she died. To this day they struggle with “the legacy of her cells”. Ms. Skloot developed a close friendship with Deborah, who does not comprehend her mother’s contribution to science but makes the reader face not only moral questions but ethical ones as well … “if her mother was so important to medicine, why is it her family can not afford medical insurance?”

An excellent story that explains the science in an easy to comprehend manner without “talking down” to the reader. Despite her amazing story Henrietta Lacks lies in an unmarked grave and often the scientists working with the HeLa cells do not know the history behind them. Hopefully this book changes all that.