Friday, October 29, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I'd never heard of Henrietta Lacks until a few weeks ago, when my friend Patti told me about this fascinating book she was reading, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," by Rebecca Skloot (2010, Crown, 369 pp., $26).

"Like every good book, this one begins with a question," Patti wisely told me.

While a student in a freshman Biology course, the author, Skloot, asked her professor who was the person the HeLa cells they were studying came from. Turns out it was a loaded question - one that took 10 years of research to answer.

I don't choose to read a lot of non-fiction, but this book proved to be made even more intriguing by the fact that it's true.

Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who resided most of her adult life in the Baltimore area, married and had five children before succumbing - at the age of 31 - to an extremely nasty and pervasive cervical cancer. Skloot doesn't pull any punches in her descriptions of Henrietta's fast-spreading cancer, which grew out of control more quickly than usual because, her doctors said, poor Henrietta had been exposed by her philandering husband to syphilis.

The treatment turned out to be equally as bad as the disease: Radiation treatments in the 40s were shockingly rudimentary and brutal. Skloot uncovered all this because she had, through the Lacks family's permission, access to all of Henrietta's charts to say just exactly what the poor woman went through.

Gifted at telling the intimate tale the involves Henrietta's descendents, Skloot recounts, in painful detail, Henrietta's visits to Johns Hopkins Hospital for treatment in the "negro ward." Once Henrietta was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the doctor cut off some pieces of Henrietta's ultimately deadly tumor - without her prior knowledge or consent - for research. It was a common practice at the time for doctors - cell research was fairly rudimentary, and they apparently needed fresh tissue constantly because the cells would eventually die.

But Henrietta's cells were different ... and different is an understatement. They simply didn't die. The aggressive cancer she had caused them to keep multiplying and that's where the term "immortal" comes in.

Henrietta may have lived only to 1951, but her cells continued to divide and are still around today - in droves, in fact. Giant "factories" of Henrietta's cells, which were nicknamed HeLa cells, sprang up as scientists used them to make polio vaccines and study cancer. The cells were even launched into space for study. These cells from Henrietta's tumor became a multibillion dollar industry and were the basis of modern virus study, gene mapping, cloning and fertility.

But Skloot doesn't stop at the science part of the story. She spent a decade, existing on "student loans and credit cards," delving into Henrietta's life. She gets to know Henrietta's children and grandchildren.

And here's where the story evolves: Perhaps even more devastating than Henrietta's life cut short by a horribly painful disease, is that once her cells became "famous," her family never received any compensation or recognition - at least, not until Skloot found them. They were poor and struggled with disease and poverty. They were even duped by some greedy researchers into giving their own blood for study.

Henrietta's youngest daughter, Deborah, who never knew her mother, is Skloot's main contact for the family. Deborah's story is as much of a heartbreak as her mother's.
Henrietta Lacks, unwittingly, made a giant contribution to science and to humankind.

While not terribly uplifting, this book is a good, eye-opening read. I even learned a bit about cell research. I find it hard to believe that this kind of duplicitous research happened here in America. But, as my friend Patti reminded me when we discussed the book, without HeLa cells, modern cancer and AIDS research and the polio vaccine, among countless other fields of study, would not have been possible.

Apparently, Oprah was interested in the story too. She's working with HBO on a movie about Henrietta Lacks.

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