The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

My coworker Stephen initially suggested for me to read this book because, well, we're both science nerds and it was getting all kinds of rave reviews in the media. Mom got it for me and sent it in my Easter Basket. As of this point in my life, this book is the quickest read I have had, from start to finish it took 5 days. I literally could not put the book down. There was a lot of science involved in the book, but I found it so interesting learning the background of this womans life, how her cells have changed the advancement of modern science as we know it, and how her living family (children and grandchildren) are handling it.

I can get all sorts of in-depth about the science interest of this book, but I'll water it down so it's easier to fully understand. HeLa cells are named after a woman named Henrietta Lacks. She was an African American woman who had a severe case of cervical cancer and before she passed away in 1951, a biopsy of her cervix was taken without her permission to see if researchers and scientists could continue to grow these cells out of her body. They were working to make the first line of human "immortal" cells, which means that the cells were able to replicate with no lifetime expiration. For decades, scientists had been trying to immortalize almost every type of cell in our body, but after a certain amount of replications, the cells would die. This is because of Telomeres in our body. (they are the red caps in this picture)

So basically, in all of our "normal" cells, telomeres are what cause the aging process, essentially what makes us eventually grow old. In cancer cells however, like Henrietta's cells, telomeres are protected by an enzyme called Telomerase that replaces the part of the telomere that was shortening.  So from the picture above, the red part will never shorten to lead to the cells death, it will continuously be able to grow and replicate.  Henrietta's cells grew like wildfire. "Henrietta Lacks's cells multiplied like nothing anyone had seen. They latched to the sides of test tubes, consumed the medium around them, and within days, the thin film of cells grew thicker and thicker."

Millions upon millions of labs across the world use HeLa cells daily. When I worked at Lonza in Maryland, the Cell Culture group worked with HeLa cells almost every day. "Researchers welcomed the gifts, allowing HeLa to grow. They used the cells to search for a leukemia cure and the cause of cancer, to study viral growth, protein synthesis, genetic control mechanisms, and the unknown effects of drugs and radiation. And though Henrietta never traveled farther than from Virginia to Baltimore, her cells sat in nuclear test sites from America to Japan and multiplied in a space shuttle far above the Earth." Most noteably, Jonas Salk used HeLa to find his polio vaccine.

The book goes into extensive details of Henriettas life, and it goes into great depths on the ethical dilemma faced by her family. Until 1975, 24 years after Henrietta's death, her family had no idea that her cells even existed. It discusses the anguish the family faced upon the news of how their mother had been treated, because for them, if her cells were still alive, that was a part of their mother being abused and tested and tortured. Their mother had advanced nearly every avenue of science, yet her immediate family did not have health insurance nor the means to pay for medicine when needed.

This is the first book that I have read that does not have a movie out for me to follow-up with. What is strange at the same time though, is how in-touch I felt with this book moreso than any other as I was reading it; I think that's why I read it so quickly. Hopefully in the years to come, more lobbying is done to promote Henrietta in our history books. I wish I had known about her when I was learning about Rosalind Franklin and Florence Nightingale and Barbara McClintock and Sally Ride. Henrietta may have not been directly involved with her cells, but understanding how much her cells have done for science and for medicine is fascinating and very easy to understand and easy to feel inspired through. This book is definitely a read that anyone can appreciate. It's broken down into 3 sections: Life, Death, and Immortality. I liked Life the most, getting to understand her background, and so many references to Virginia and Maryland.

Recommendation: Get the book!!


Jessica said... Add Reply

not yet, but soon there will be: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/12/hbo-plans-film-from-the-immortal-life-of-henrietta-lacks/

and with HBO, Oprah, and Alan Ball involved, it should be good. It sounds really, really interesting.

LGibbs said... Add Reply

Thanks so much for the info, I'm already excited about it!!

Scientific Housewife said... Add Reply

Great review, it was really fascinating to me as a scientist in a cancer hospital to see where our research, informed consent, and cancer knowledge originated from.

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