Not Exactly Rocket Science

i-02d606f9e51d6d7d183a69dbc1641b9a-HenriettaLacks.jpgLook in any biomedical laboratory, and you will find HeLa cells. Over 50 million tonnes of these cells have been grown in churning vats of liquid all over the world. They have been one of the most important tools in modern medicine, pushing forward our understanding of cancer and other diseases, and underpinning the polio vaccine, IVF, cloning, and more. None of these advanced would have been feasible without HeLa. Most scientists have used or seen them but most have no idea about their origin. It’s time to find out.

In early 1951, there was only one place in the world where HeLa cells could be found – the cervix of a poor, black tobacco farmer called Henrietta Lacks. She was treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital where, without her knowledge or consent, doctors took some cells from her tumour and cultured them. They became HeLa – the immortal line of cells that would change the world. Henrietta died in the same year. Her family only learned of her “immortality” more than 20 years later, when scientists started using them in research, again without informed consent, to better understand Henrietta’s cells. The cells launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials but her family cannot afford health insurance.

The remarkably story of Henrietta’s life, cells and family are now coming to light, narrated in an equally remarkable book – Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot is a veteran science journalist and first-time author and her debut is thrilling and original non-fiction that refuses to be shoehorned into anything as trivial as a genre. It is equal parts popular science, historical biography and detective novel. It reads as evocatively as any work of fiction, with dialogue, characters and settings vividly reconstructed from archived material, legal documents and thousands of hours of interviews. Like a mystery, the chronology flits back and forth from the first and last days of Henrietta’s life, the decades of discovery that followed her death and Skloot’s own modern-day quest to uncover the story.

Indeed, Skloot repeatedly appears as a character in her own book, narrating her journey from first hearing about HeLa cells in a classroom to her attempts to contact and support the Lacks family. This literary device could easily have come across as self-aggrandising but Skloot fully earns her status as the story’s third protagonist. Her narration reveals the trials that the Lacks family have undergone since Henrietta’s cells went global, and the sheer amount of trust it took to uncover the details of this story.

I did, indeed, say “third protagonist”. This is really a book about three heroines – the two whose names grace the cover and Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks. Skloot’s personal mission to tell this story and Deborah’s quest to know about her mother’s life and legacy are central parts of Henrietta’s story and they form some of the book’s most compelling segments.

I write this review as someone who isn’t typically a fan of historical non-fiction. Particularly in popular science, I often find descriptions of researchers to be distracting attempts at shoehorning in a human element that is out of keeping with the rest of the book. Not so here – this work has the most human of stories at its core, and never deviates from that important, and often heartbreaking, humanity. When science appears, it does so effortlessly, with explanations of cell anatomy or techniques like “fluorescence in situ hybridization” seamlessly worked into descriptions of the coloured wards of Johns Hopkins hospital to Lacks’s hometown of Clover, Virginia.

Skloot’s prose is witty, lyrical, economical and authoritative. But The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not a comfortable read. I visibly winced at descriptions of Henrietta’s blackened, burned skin after multiple rounds of devastating radiation treatments. I put the book down with a heavy sigh after reading about the experiments that black Americans have been unwittingly subjected to over the years. I cried twice, at events that I can’t talk about without seriously spoiling the book. But it is uplifting too, particularly in a stand-out chapter where Henrietta’s children, Deborah and Zakariyya, visit a cancer researcher to see their mother’s cells under a microscope.

All of this is to be expected of a book that refuses to shy away from tackling important themes – the interplay between science and ethics, the question of who owns our bodies, and the history of racism in the US. And yet for all its grand scope, skilful writing and touching compassion, there is one simple element that makes The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks an instant classic – this is one of those stories that genuinely needed to be told.

Uncovering it was a decade-long labour of love for Skloot and every year of research is apparent in its brisk 300-page length. It’s a tribute to the art of investigative journalism and it sets an incredibly high benchmark for future non-fiction writing. As a young science writer starting out in this field, this book will provide inspiration for years to come.

As a final thought, I was struck by the parallels between Henrietta’s cells and her story. Henrietta’s entire family history was eventually condensed into a small sliver of cells that you could carry in a glass vial. They have achieved immortality, used by scientists throughout the world. Similarly, her entire life has been condensed into a moving tale and an exceptional book that you could read in a comfortable day. By right, it will achieve the same immortal status.

 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks launches on February 2, 2010 and is currently available to pre-order on Amazon (UK or US site). I urge you to do so – pre-ordering will help to determine the book’s fate in the first few weeks of sale, when much of its future is set.  

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Comments

  1. #1 FrauTech
    January 25, 2010

    Ok you convinced me, I pre-ordered, WELL DONE SIR.

  2. #2 paranoid android
    January 26, 2010

    Pre-ordered. Now I’m off to check on my HeLa cells (which I will viciously murder by virus infection later this week).

  3. #3 IanW
    January 26, 2010

    I don’t see a mention that Rebecca has a blog here:
    http://scienceblogs.com/culturedish
    which sadly is full of shameless self promotion right now, but hopefully that will pass.

  4. #4 Ed Yong
    January 26, 2010

    See, if I’d spent 10 years writing a book, I’d feel pretty justified in focusing on self-promotion in the run-up to launch! ;-)

  5. #5 Lilian Nattel
    January 26, 2010

    You did a great job in reviewing this book, and it is an important story. I’m glad it was so well told and I’m looking forward to reading it, difficult as parts of it are.

  6. #6 CS Shelton
    January 28, 2010

    Hey y’all. Science ignoramus here (BFA). From what I’ve read (and hardly understood) about HeLa cells, it sounds like they don’t die of old age. Is that true? If so, seems to me they’d be of use in finding some ideas for curtailing age-related health issues, or experimentally finding out what health problems a cell may encounter if it never dies of natural causes. If humans figure out immortality, it will almost certainly lead to unforeseen entropic health issues in people over 100 years or so. But I’m just talking out my ass, and may have utterly misunderstood what I was looking at from the get-go. What say ye?
    As to the book and the subject, that sounds awesome. I’m glad ghosts aren’t real, because this lady would have a mighty powerful case for fuckin’ up our world a la “The Ring.” (In the original novel, it was the ghost of the small pox virus what got people).

  7. #7 Ed Yong
    January 29, 2010

    HeLa cells are indeed immortal. They can keep on dividing without the limits that would hamper most other cells. And we know why. Rather than explain here, I’d recommend that you get the book – it explains it all very neatly in one of the later chapters.

    But I’d think it unlikely that this is going to tell us much about age-related health issues. It is very clear what the price of immortality is – cancer.

  8. #8 CS Shelton
    January 29, 2010

    Ed – Beautifully and simply put. Disturbing. I’ll pick that thing up at the library when I can.

  9. #9 RedRuth
    January 31, 2010

    I have to say I completely disagree. Cell lines are derived from Humans on a regular basis, I use cells from a man who died from colon cancer and a young girl who had neuroblastoma. What exactly is the issue here? Would this fuss be made if she hadn’t been black and poor? I doubt it.

    Her cells were useful but they’re not unique and why should her family get money for her cells when other families don’t? I’ve read an article by the author of this book and it was self aggrandising overblown nonsense.

    Trying to conflate the real racially motivated problems in the US with this type of cancer research is just insulting to everyone involved, in my opinion.

  10. #10 Rosa
    January 31, 2010

    I also disagree. The hela cells would have been taken during the normal procedures to try and save her life. Neither the doctors or the hospital have to have consent to use the tissues removed from the body through cancer treatments, whether they are Black, White, rich or poor. Thousands of black and white men and women have had their cells used for research and have saved thousands of lives.

  11. #11 Ed Yong
    January 31, 2010

    One wonders what you two actually think you’re disagreeing with. It may have escaped your attention that this is a review of a book, rather than a thorough analysis of the ethical issues raised by the story. For that, you’d actually have to read the book, particularly the last chapter, which deals with these issues extensively.

  12. #12 PalMD
    January 31, 2010

    yes, that would help. one of the points of this book is to look at these sometimes-subtle problems, especially problems that many scientists and doctors might not have considered.

  13. #13 Ed Yong
    January 31, 2010

    Abel Pharmboy says it best here

  14. #14 RedRuth
    January 31, 2010

    I thought I was very clear about my objections. The conflation of real problems (endemic racism in the US) with the issue of informed consent and how tisseue/cells are used in research. I doubt if I’ll read the book but I have read Skloot’s website. It’s nonsensical hyperbole followed by the bottom line

    “And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?”

    Paying people for blood/tissue donations is a bad precedent to set, most people are happy with the knowledge that they’ve helped medical research. And lets not forget that had she refused permission for her cells to be used then research would have been delayed but someone elses cells would have been cultured and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    The social ills of American society are real, this is a none issue, in my opinion.

  15. #15 Ed Yong
    January 31, 2010

    The book, of course, provides an opportunity to reppraise said opinion in the light of history and some actual knowledge. You say that you doubt you’ll take that opportunity and in this, we are both agreed.

  16. #16 PalMD
    January 31, 2010

    RR, the book doesn’t say what you think it says…

  17. #17 ellie
    February 22, 2010

    Has anyone managed to buy a copy in the UK? Amazon have just sent me a message saying they can’t fulfill my order :( and Waterstones have a 3 week wait.