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“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” By Rebecca Skloot

A review by Wanda Swenson
The cells are called HeLa (hee-lah) cells. They were used in research of the diabetes, heart disease or the cancer you may have been diagnosed with. They definitely were used to develop the many vaccines with which we have all been inoculated, and they are being used in advanced medical techniques such as gene mapping, chemotherapy and in vitro fertilization.
They have created a huge moral debate and dilemma in the research world about who owns the rights to the cells, tissue and organs that are harvested every day in clinics and hospitals everywhere and that are sitting in labs and freezers all around the world. With that kind of importance, you would think you would have heard of HeLa cells, but I’ll bet you haven’t.
Until I read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, I had never heard of them either, but it was definitely a revelation of an unusual kind for me. The book was recommended to me last fall by a former student and her mother. I was so intrigued that I went online and ordered it from Amazon the next day.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman living in Virginia in 1951, who had been raised by her grandfather and had married her first cousin, David. They had five children, two of whom were born before the couple was married. In January of 1951, four months after the birth of her fifth child, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer and treated with radium tube inserts and radiation X-rays.
The treatments did not save her life, but during her treatment, doctors removed two samples of Henrietta’s cervix, a healthy part and a cancerous part, without her permission. Those cells from her cervix were given to Dr. George Otto Gey who cultured them in his lab and found they had a unique property. They did not die as other cells did; in fact, they multiplied at an amazing rate and could be used successfully in research experiments. This was a dramatic boon to the medical field of research. These cells would eventually become the HeLa immortal cell line that is still used in research all over the world.
The name HeLa was taken from the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last name, and for many years, no one knew who she was or where the cells actually came from. Rebecca Skloot decided to learn more about the woman whose cells were populating research labs everywhere after a college biology lecture in 1988. She began researching, interviewing and investigating everyone who had known Henrietta and all those who treated her.
Skloot’s main reason for writing the book was to tell the story of Henrietta and her children, who live in poverty and have never received a dime for the use of their mother’s cells for over half a century. Skloot’s relationship with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, was challenging and difficult at times, but she was the motivation for Skloot to find the pathway to the truth. The family was not provided any information on their mother’s cancer, how she died or how “immortal” she is, due to the trillions of her cells that still populate the world. It has been difficult for the family to make peace with the existence of those cells and the science that made it possible.
Legally, the rights to Henrietta’s cells were not hers or her family’s in the 1950s, and it is still the same today. That is what is causing the moral and legal debate in the medical community that may never be solved. When we sign those papers before medical procedures, we are most likely signing away ownership to whatever it is that is being removed from us and giving permission for it to be used for medical research. Most of us don’t care where our appendix goes or who wants to use it, I guess, but for Henrietta’s family, the profit from her immortal cells could have been a way to rise out of poverty and into a brighter life.
This is an interesting nonfiction read that really gets to the heart of an unbelievable historic event, a family that was left ignorant of that event and a legal and ethical debate surrounding tissue ownership and research.

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