The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks * Rebecca Skloot

This is the first non-fiction I have read (or more like listened to) in a while and while I loved the book, there were definitely some flaws with it too (probably stemming from the author’s way of writing).

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Tumor cells taken from her were used without her consent to produce a research cell line that has been kept alive in labs around the world ever since.

What the book is about

The book tries to be about the life and death and the cells of Henrietta Lacks – but it ends up being about many other things as well. About cell research, about black exploitation in medical trials in 1950’s America, about the crude treatment methods available at that time for cervical cancer, about the money machine that is tissue and organ trading, and last but not least, about the author’s journey in discovering who Henrietta Lacks was.


What I absolutely loved about the book was the facts and dates section. It is very well researched and it goes into great detail about HELA cells, cell culture, cancerous growths and cells that cause cancer. It also explains the slow and tedious advances in medicine since the 50’s and how a cell culture from an unknown black woman called Henrietta Lacks changed the face of medical research as we know it.
Oprah owns the rights to make a movie of Henrietta’s life

I also found the bits talking about the syphilis researched done on the black community quite interesting – the poor people infected with syphilis were exploited – given vouchers for bus tickets and meal tickets and even $50 to the remaining family members to cover funeral expenses – but not the cure that would keep them from dying.  It describes the mentality of the white American doctors who treated the black patients as sheep – not much different from the Nazi doctors who used humans in their experiments all with the excuse that it’s done for the greater good.

Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus—and at the very same time—that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies.”


I liked the moral approach on whether a person’s cells is like a person’s money and whether the person should be able to consent to what they are used for – especially people with rare genetic disorders or blood diseases.

The American Type Culture Collection—a nonprofit whose funds go mainly toward maintaining and providing pure cultures for science—has been selling HeLa since the sixties. When this book went to press, their price per vial was $256. The ATCC won’t reveal how much money it brings in from HeLa sales each year, but since HeLa is one of the most popular cell lines in the world, that number is surely significant.”

What I didn’t like – or found quite dull – is the author’s incursion into Henrietta’s past. She finds her surviving family members and finds out who was the human person behind the cells that were so famous. It was a nice intent but I thought that

a.) describing in great detail the autopsy and the harsh treatment that Henrietta was subjected in the hospital could come as a shock to the public and also to the family members who would be forced to re-live the traumatising death of a loved one.

b.) knowing that Henrietta was a coquettish woman who liked to have her nails painted is great to know but makes me wonder what relevance it has to it all..

c.) 60% of the book is interviews with everyone that knew or remotely heard of Henrietta Lacks – from the mail man to the family members.

“For me, it’s writing a book and telling people about this story.”
― Rebecca Skloot

d.) I feel that a law suit is brewing in getting some of that dough accumulated from Henrietta Lacks’s cells – due to the fact that no consent was requested or given and the family was not asked to approve any future research being done on the cells of a loved one after their death. They might not have a case as in 1951 there was no medical ethical cover for such a thing.

“She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?”

I know it’s supposed to be a biography of a very important human being that helped mankind – but most biographies are of people that did something important IN THEIR LIFE, not by dying. The intent of the author was to put a human face on the person who had their cells taken out without her consent and then grown in the laboratory and sold for profit to anyone willing to do research with them. It helped with Polio, Aids research and other blood-born diseased. Her cells helped study what happens if you subject them to high pressure like you would find deep underwater or what happens with cells in space. The HELA cells helped reduce the number of experiments done on monkeys (not because it was cruel to test on monkeys but because monkeys were deemed expensive at that time).

The ethical point is still being debated – as to whether research should be done on cells collected from patients – without their explicit consent.

“In 1999 the RAND Corporation published a report (the first and, so far, last of its kind) with a “conservative estimate” that more than 307 million tissue samples from more than 178 million people were stored in the United States alone. This number, the report said, was increasing by more than 20 million samples each year. The samples come from routine medical procedures, tests, operations, clinical trials, and research donations. They sit in lab freezers, on shelves, or in industrial vats of liquid nitrogen. They’re stored at military facilities, the FBI, and the National Institutes of Health.” 

 “much of this research does not involve physical risk to participants; rather, risks are limited to the more remote possibility of informational harm resulting from the inadvertent release of confidential information.”

National Public Radio

I give the book a solid 3/5 for the good attempt it made at a scientific overlook of the HELA cells for the masses, taking points out for overly expanding the life of Henrietta Lacks and the author’s personal involvement in the story. (Ironic, no? as the book is said to be about her)

If it was supposed to be a human interest story, she could have focused solely on that. Instead, it mixes medical research with tracking down a missing person..

Why are HeLa cells immortal?“Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.”


What are they, and how are they used?

Scientists grow large numbers of identical cells for laboratory experiments. The cells are usually of a specific cell line (or type), and there are many different lines available. Ruth Paget takes a look at one widely used type – HeLa cells – to find out more about their fascinating history.

What are HeLa cells?

HeLa cells are human cervical cancer cells (the cervix is found at the top of the vagina and the entrance to the uterus). The cells were first cultured, or grown, in a laboratory in 1951 and were the first type of human cancer cell to be cultured continuously for experiments. There are many different strains (subtypes) of HeLa cells that are now used.

How do HeLa cells grow continuously?

HeLa cells grow rapidly given the right medium (nutrients and conditions) and space. This is because HeLa cells are cancer cells, which multiply and grow quickly in an uncontrolled way compared to normal cells. They can also spread and infect other cells. HeLa cells became cancerous due to infection with human papilloma virus 18 (HPV18). Cervical cancer is very closely associated with HPV 16 and HPV18, which can disrupt the normal activity of the cell to make cells become cancerous. However, not every woman that contracts one of these viruses will develop cervical cancer.

In normal cells, the Hayflick limit means cells can only divide by mitosis a certain number of times because the telomeres at the ends of the chromosomes shorten with each division. This doesn’t apply to many types of cancer cells because they produce an enzyme called telomerase, which elongates the telomeres after chromosomes are copied and allows the cells to multiply continuously.

“They also knew that there was a string of DNA at the end of each chromosome called a telomere, which shortened a tiny bit each time a cell divided, like time ticking off a clock. As normal cells go through life, their telomeres shorten with each division until they’re almost gone. Then they stop dividing and begin to die. This process correlates with the age of a person: the older we are, the shorter our telomeres, and the fewer times our cells have left to divide before they die. By the early nineties, a scientist at Yale had used HeLa to discover that human cancer cells contain an enzyme called telomerase that rebuilds their telomeres. The presence of telomerase meant cells could keep regenerating their telomeres indefinitely. This explained the mechanics of HeLa’s immortality: telomerase constantly rewound the ticking clock at the end of Henrietta’s chromosomes so they never grew old and never died.”

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