The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot
This book has been whispering “Read Me, Read Me” to me for quite a while now but I only succumbed when a bookish friend with similar reading tastes wholeheartedly recommended it as a must-read. My inital reluctance was partly due to the “science bit”. I guess I was suspicious of how a non-fiction book about cell biology could possibly draw me in. Therefore I was very pleasantly surprised to be completely drawn into the life of Henrietta and her family and all the medical advances which were her legacy.
Henrietta died an extremely painful death not long after being diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer. Radiotherapy was not the fine tuned treatment which exists today and Henrietta experienced very severe side effects whilst trying to keep the gravity of her condition secret from her family. She was a wife and mother of five, one of whom was only a little baby when she died. Cells excised from Henrietta’s cervix became the first cells to survive growth in laboratory conditions and thus became the progenitors of HeLa cells which are commonly used in biological research to this very day. HeLa cells became an extremely effective research tool in the manufacture of a Polio vaccine which revolutionised society – I remember Polio was a frequent scourge of my parents’ generation, an affliction which traumatised so many families and to think that we have Henrietta to thank for being part of the solution. HeLa cells have also been used in research to develop drugs to combat AIDS, cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and many other ailments.
However, there is a very human side to this story too, something which some medical professionals perhaps fail to see, hence the recent, long-overdue phenomenon of advanced communication skill courses for consultants. Henrietta’s family were not informed that her cells had been used for research purposes and did not discover this until 20 years after her death. Hence the whole focus turns to ethics and Skloot handles this sensitive subject very well, detailing the development of “informed consent” whereby patients give permission for any part of their bodies to be used for medical research. Such advances in bio-ethics were but a distant dream for the Lacks family as they struggled to understand how Henrietta “lived” on and was indeed “immortal”. The irony is that, as the Lacks family struggled to pay for adequate medical care, the sales of HeLa cells generated billions of dollars for the companies which grew and sold them. Had “informed consent” law been around in Henrietta’s time, would she have given her consent? Would medical research have been set back if she hadn’t? Should Henrietta’s family have had a share in the profits generated by the sale of HeLa cells?
Skloot wisely does not attempt to answer these questions but she paints a balanced picture of events where race, patriarchal medical professionals, business, profit and family all play a part. I can see how “scientists” might not value this multi-toned approach but for the “ordinary” reader, this book is a wonderful example of creative non-fiction, presenting the whole picture and thus providing plenty of material for discussion. This is an extremely important book as it uncovers some of the smoke and mirrors of medical research and shows the human face behind what we appreciate as major medical advances in our time. An extremely readable account and I am very grateful that Rebecca Skloot spent ten long, at times, frustrating, years finding the pieces to complete the HeLa jigsaw.