Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot


At the age of 16, I won a student summer job at the University of Aberdeen in the Department of Cell Pathology. It was the first time I had worked in a lab, and I jokingly refer to it as the summer I attempted to cure cancer. In all seriousness, it was very exciting for me as a high school student to work in a university laboratory and learn techniques such as pipetting (with much fancier pipettes than were available in my high school chemistry labs) and cell culture protocols, and to use sophisticated equipment to count cells and visualize them. I remember discussing the experiment I was to conduct that summer – the impact of a particular amino acid (arginine) side chain of a topoisomerase inhibitor (NU/ICRF 510) on cancer cells vs. non-cancer cells – and kept hearing the terms “HeLa” and “fibroblast” thrown around. I managed to figure out that “HeLa” cells were cancer cells and “fibroblasts” were non-cancer cells. I never stopped to wonder where the cells came from, or how they were obtained.

The book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, by Rebecca Skloot, tells that story with compassion and skill. The cells known as “HeLa” cells are so named because of the woman from whose tissue they originated: “He” for Henrietta and “La” for Lacks. Henrietta developed cervical cancer in the early 1950s and, in the course of diagnosis, some of her cervical tissue was taken for the purposes of research. This doesn’t sound particularly noteworthy, but three key pieces of information are missing: 1) the tissue was taken for research without Henrietta’s (or her family’s) consent, 2) researchers went on to send her cells around the world, and 3) companies began to charge for researchers to purchase her cells. Skloot expertly interweaves three story threads: the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family, the state of the scientific/medical world at the time and since, and also the portrayals of the family and relevant scientific advances in the media. This book is not only compelling (I didn’t want to put it down), but also informative and thought-provoking. I was inspired to download several academic papers that were mentioned in the book, and I now have a completely new perspective on Research Ethics Boards and submissions of ethics applications to conduct research. This book is a must read for anyone conducting human research, and I strongly recommend it for everyone else!

Photograph of Henrietta Lacks

– Catriona Hippman, Research Program Manager

You might find the following sites interesting that were referenced in the book:

ScienceBlogs

This week in Virology

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