The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a non-fiction book that tells the story of a woman whose cancer cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 and used for scientific research.
The Immortal HeLa Cells
The HeLa cells was the first immortal cell line ever discovered. This means that they can survive and multiply forever in labs given they are provided with cell culture. Without this amazing discovery modern medicine would look very different.. HeLa stands for Henrietta Lacks. The name of the poor tobacco farmer from which the cells come from. This book tells the story of the cells and the Lacks family, (which I quite a ride!) but also the history of patient consent.
Key notes and takeaways
📝 What made the HeLa cancer cells so special was that they allowed researchers to do all kinds of experiments on them that would never be allowed to do on live humans.
📝 HeLa led to the polio vaccine in a time when people died in droves from it. Only one of many HeLa contributions!
📝 The Tuskegee Study: In the 30s scientists studied how one died from syphilis. Black men were observed dying from syphilis without intervention. (Yes, a cure existed.) “Doctors were doing experiments on black people. Watching them die.” That was the word on the streets when the study came to public knowledge. No wonder black Americans were distrustful of scientists!
📝 All cancers originate from one cell going wrong. Scary thought. Memento Mori I guess!
📝 People in prisons volunteered to inject Henrietta’s cancer cells into their arms to see how healthy people rejected to them. These patients fought off the cancer. (I would not volunteer for that 😬)
📝 Modern gene patenting inhabits research. (No shit, Sherlock! 🕵️♂️ 😒)
📝 The Lacks family have seen nothing of millions of dollars being made from HeLa-cells. They are still dirt poor.
Video Review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
What made things worse was the Lacks family’s lack of education. When hearing about Henrietta’s cells being cloned in London, her daughter thought actual copies of Henrietta were walking on Trafalgar Square, when in reality it was only her cancer cells that were cloned. The stress made her sick. So much unnecessary suffering could have been avoided by education.