The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot (Pan, 2010)
In 1951 a young woman called Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Before her treatment began, biopsies of her normal cervical cells and of the cancer cells were taken and sent to the labs. The scientists were interested in comparing normal cervical tissue and two types of cancerous tissue (carcinoma in situ and invasive carcinoma) in order to show that the carcinomas were the same and both needed treating.
For three decades, a researcher and his wife at the hospital had been trying to grow human cells for research, but most cells died quickly. From the samples, they found that Henrietta’s cancerous cells grew twenty times faster than her normal cells, which died after a few days. Henrietta’s cells became the first immortal human cells and were known as HeLa cells. HeLa cells have become universal, still cultured and used by scientists today. They were used in research into polio vaccine initially and then for research with viruses, bacteria, hormones, proteins. In spite of being cancerous, the HeLa cells shared many basic characteristics of normal cells, and their ability to grow made them into a very useful research tool. As readers, we found this part of the story compelling, if at times incomplete.
Rebecca Skloot has tapped into a fascinating topic which raises questions concerning ethical issues of research on tissue material from patients. If a patient agrees to a biopsy, do they then own that tissue? Is it reasonable for the scientists to use that tissue material to do research with the intention of finding out more about, for example, the sequence of events that turn precancerous cells into cancerous cells? If a breakthrough is made with a particular individual’s cells, who should be able to benefit from that? Who should profit? The scientists who cultured the cells initially shared them with other labs round the world for free, but in time culturing became an industry. Companies have made millions from Henrietta’s cells and the treatments that have arisen from their availability. In the meantime, Henrietta’s family were still unable to afford their own healthcare. Did the scientific world owe them anything?
While studying biology at school, Rebecca Skloot became fascinated with the story of HeLa cells and thought it should be told. She is a science journalist and her book began as a way of giving the story of the woman Henrietta Lacks, whose cells became so important to the scientific world. The reader follows Skloot as she undertakes the research. The science is presented in tantalizing snippets while not really showing us the results of some of the studies ‘They used HeLa to test the effects of steroids, chemotherapy drugs, hormones, vitamins and environmental stress; they infected them with tuberculosis, salmonella and the bacterium that caused vaginitus.’ The issue of contamination of other cells by HeLa cells, which invalidated much of the research after this was discovered, was mentioned but not explored, it left too many unanswered questions.
Henrietta’s family comes to dominate the book, and Skloot’s purpose is consequently divided and diluted. Rebecca appeared to be writing the book for Henrietta’s children, in particular the daughter; forceful characters who felt they were owed something. And in a sense they were right. Reporters and journalists had repeatedly come round to find out their story, and yet they themselves haven’t benefitted. This book reads as though Rebecca felt she owed the family a story.
The writer has combined two stories, which might have been better written separately. One with a focus on Henrietta (whose life is described, but not focused on) and her cells, and another on the issues around research and attitudes to patients and subjects in America, in particular to the treatment of black Americans and the healthcare services available to them. Henrietta Lacks died of cancer at a young age (30) and the story of her family, although interesting, strictly is not the story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells. That is another story.
We didn’t like the way science was juxtaposed with suggestions that Henrietta was still perceived as ‘controlling’ events, as immortal in a different way. For example, the occurrence of a car accident. For a non-fiction book, this didn’t gel well. There also seemed to be inconsistencies in the story line and conflicting information, both of which suggested the editing could have been better. Overall, we were disappointed with the book but felt that the subject matter was interesting and deserved better treatment. As a Book Group read, though, it stimulated interesting discussions about the text, the subject, the writer and her style.
Anne McDonnell and Helen Durham
Next Meeting: Monday 21 May 2012 (10:30–12:30), The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. New members welcome.