Jen’s Library: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot

If you’ve ever learned anything about cell biology, cloning, or vaccines, you should know Henrietta Lacks.

She died young – only 31 years old – of invasive cervical cancer. She left behind a husband, five young children, and a small slice of cancer cells that would end up living longer than she ever had a chance to.

When she was treated at Johns Hopkins, in 1951, her doctors took a biopsy of her tumor. Researchers soon found out that her cells would multiply indefinitely, defying the normal rules of cell division. Usually, a cell divides a finite number of times before dying, which is why we age. Cancer cells tend to ignore this rule, dividing as they please and becoming mutated and unrecognizable versions of their former selves. For years, cell biologists had been trying to create cell cultures – vials of identical cells that they could keep alive and use for research, because standardization is so important. To be sure the results are reproducible, everyone needs to be able to start with the same materials. Henrietta’s cells, which became known as the HeLa line, finally gave the scientists what they needed.

Sadly, the Lacks family was completely unaware of the cell line and its contributions to biology. A poor black family living in Baltimore, they didn’t have money to go to doctors themselves. Their mother’s cells are patented and being sold from lab to lab, all without the family’s knowledge or prior consent.

Rebecca Skloot is a reporter who decided to explore the HeLa story and get to know the Lacks family. This book is a fascinating look at HeLa’s contribution to modern medicine and genetics research, along with the evolution of medical ethics since the 1950s. I’m embarrassed to say that I knew nothing about this woman. I’m glad this book came out and brought her out into the light so everyone can read about her.

If you’re in a scientific or a medical field, you need to read this. And if you’re not, you should anyway.

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