The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot. Crown Publishing Group, division of Random House, Inc., New York. 2010. 384 pp.
By Jeanne Zyrkowski, MS
Adjunct Faculty Member, Kaplan University School of Health Sciences

In 1951, researchers were attempting to find human cells that would grow in a culture medium and be used for medical research. All attempts failed until a sample of the cervical tumor from Henrietta Lacks was successfully grown.

Henrietta was a poor African American woman living in Baltimore. At age 30, she had just given birth to her fifth child when she became aware of abnormal bleeding and swelling. Without any type of health insurance or ability to pay for care, she was seen at Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the only charity hospitals that would see African American patients. As part of the diagnostic tests, a sample of the tumor was removed, and found to be malignant. When radium treatments began, another sample of cells was removed and sent to Dr. George Gey, who was working on methods to grow cells in the lab.

From Henrietta’s specimen, cells began to grow. Named HeLa cells, they doubled in numbers every 24 hours and kept growing.  Researchers finally had cells that could grow in the lab and be used to test new vaccines and medications. Samples were shared with researchers around the world, where the cells continued to grow.

The growth of HeLa cells was a medical breakthrough, and the cells were used over the years to develop the polio vaccine and chemotherapeutic agents. They were used to test the effects of zero gravity on human cells prior to man’s journey into space. In more recent times, the HeLa cells have been instrumental in gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.

Since the cells were first placed in the culture medium in Dr. Gey’s lab in 1951, over 50 million metric tons of HeLa cells have been grown. All without Henrietta’s consent or her family’s knowledge.

Ms. Skloot presents this story from both an intimate and historical viewpoint. Through her compassionate writing, we learn about Henrietta’s fascinating history and how the social setting of the 1950s affected her life. The author provides a very detailed account of Henrietta’s family and their concerns about how the cells are being used and sold. At times, however, the detailed interaction with the family slows the pacing of the narrative.

With her scientific background, the author uses language that is easy to follow when discussing the HeLa cells and the involved research. Commendably, she translates medical jargon into terms the layperson can understand.

The story of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells are reminders other experiments on African Americans in this country, such as the Tuskegee Study. It raises many ethical questions about informed consent, tissue rights, and profiting from human tissues and cells. In health care, we are faced with ethical dilemmas every day, and state and federal guidelines are put in place to protect the citizens. Yet, currently no ruling has been made regarding ownership of human tissues and cells, and until recently, the issue of tissue rights was rarely discussed. A search of the Internet now shows many articles and books delving into this ethical issue. Ms. Skloot discusses the pros and cons of tissue rights leaving the readers to decide for themselves. A must read for anyone interested in ethical issues.

Jeanne Zyrkowski

Mrs. Zyrkowski has worked in health care for more than 30 years. As Director of Education and Training for a New York hospital, she was responsible for the education and orientation of the staff to ensure their competency. She also developed and implemented a community-wide health and wellness program.

Ms. Zyrkowski has been active in community organizations such as the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association, where she served as president of the Heart Association Board of Directors and was a faculty trainer in their life support program.

Kaplan Higher Education Corporation is a division of Kaplan, Inc., a subsidiary of The Washington Post Company.

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