Yesterday evening, eleven of us gathered to discuss Rebecca Skloot’s bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Not my usual fare, but I was intrigued by this biography of a poor black woman whose cells were taken without her knowledge.
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a mother of five in Baltimore, was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Before administering radium for the first time, the attending doctor cut two dime-size samples of tissue, one cancerous and one healthy, from Henrietta’s cervix. The doctor gave the tissue to George Gey, a scientist who was trying to establishing a continuously reproducing, or immortal, human cell line for use in cancer research. While all previous human samples had failed, Henrietta’s cancerous tissue continued to grow and has yielded an estimated 50 million metric tones of HeLa cells (hee-lah is an abbreviation of Henrietta’s name) since that time. Her cells have helped develop the polio vaccine, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and more.
Skloot, an award winning writer who specializes in narrative science writing, took over a decade to research and write the book. During that time, she became enmeshed in the lives of Henrietta’s descendants, especially her daughter, Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. Skloot also brought to light the dark history of experimentation on African Americans
We all agreed that the book raises many questions about biothethics. How should research be conducted? Who should benefit from it? Why didn’t John Hopkins offer some kind of compensation to the Lacks’ family? As Deborah so poignantly commented, “If our mother had done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors?”