'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks': One woman's cells and their curious afterlife
A review of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by science writer Rebecca Skloot. The book tells the compelling story of a cancer-stricken African-American woman whose cells far outlived her, how research scientists used and abused her cell line, and the medical and ethical controversies that dogged this curious version of immortality.
Special to The Seattle Times
'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'
by Rebecca Skloot
Crown, 330 pp., $26
In 1951 a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. This would be unremarkable except for one thing: Before Lacks died, researchers took a sample of her cancer cells and successfully grew them in a lab culture — the first time a human cell line had survived outside a human body.
Lacks' cells did more than survive: They thrived. Medical researchers and cell biologists who had struggled for decades to grow human cells for study now found it almost as easy as growing mold on soggy bread. Lacks' cells and their billions upon billions of descendants — dubbed HeLa — were bought, sold, traded and shared all over the world, to the point where there are more alive today than ever there were in Lacks' body.
HeLa has become a workhorse of research labs, the cellular equivalent of guinea pigs. They've contributed to any number of medical breakthroughs, from the Salk polio vaccine to treatments for AIDS.
But Lacks' family members weren't told any of this. Not until the 1970s, when Hopkins researchers sought them out for follow-up testing (HeLa cells were so robust they had contaminated and taken over other cell cultures, and the researchers were looking for genetic markers) did Lacks' husband and children learn of her curious afterlife.
The family's various responses — shock, anger, curiosity, desire for recognition or payment, sometimes all the above in rapid succession — makes up the core of Rebecca Skloot's compelling book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." Skloot, a science writer, intertwines the story of Lacks' own brief life (she died at 31 after bearing five children) with accounts of how scientists used — and abused — her immortal cell line, and the family's anguished reactions once they learned the truth.
Though she pervades the book, Lacks isn't Skloot's central character; rather, it's her daughter Deborah. By turns eager to learn more about the mother she barely knew and fearful that Skloot was just another person trying to take advantage of the family, Deborah eventually comes to trust Skloot enough to travel with her on research trips; together, they learn about Deborah's institutionalized older sister, read through what remains of Lacks' medical file, and in one memorable scene come face to face with HeLa itself.
The HeLa story has been told before, in books, magazine articles and documentaries, but no one got as close to the Lacks family as Skloot did. Her book was a decade in the making, and it's clear why: It took that long to win the trust of people who, with reason, felt betrayed by the medical establishment. I'm not generally a fan of nonfiction writers who feel compelled to insert their "Here's how I got the story and what I felt about it at the time" commentary into their stories, but in this case it's unavoidable: Skloot, Deborah Lacks and the rest of the family learned the full story behind HeLa together.
That story is a stew of race, class, medical paternalism, well-meaning if blinkered researchers and changing rules governing patient privacy. Skloot lays out the multiple ethical problems arising from HeLa (one researcher thought nothing of injecting live cells into unwitting volunteers) as clearly as she describes the scientific triumphs Lacks' cells made possible.
Skloot skips forward and backward through the decades, and despite the help of a timeline at the start of each chapter, it's sometimes difficult to keep track of when something is happening. And she has a tendency to end chapters with cliffhangers that, as often as not, seem a bit forced.
But her great strength is that she's just as interested in Henrietta Lacks the person as in HeLa the cells. And her book — a fast read even at 300+ pages — not only restores Lacks' humanity but appears to have brought a measure of peace to her troubled family. It's as much an act of justice as one of journalism.
Drew DeSilver is a Seattle Times business reporter.