“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, Rebecca Skloot – A Review

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I have just put this book down. Literally, seconds ago.  The only other times that I put it down in the last week were for the purposes of sleep, work and perfecting my rocker with open legs (which is not as rude as it sounds, but a Pilates move. I don’t know what its supposed to achieve. I just ache a lot).

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot lives up to everything the dust jacket promises.

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It tells the true story of Henrietta Lacks, her cancer, her treatment and of course the immortal HeLa cells that were extracted from her as she lay dying, without her knowledge in 1951.  HeLa cells are still to this day invaluable and irreplaceable scientific jewels.  Scientists have gained so much from them, academically and often financially.  Henrietta’s family, meanwhile, have not.

The way Skloot writes is so engaging.  This is certainly a page turner, whether you’re into science, history or both.  The book simultaneously takes us on Skloot’s journey through her research, Henrietta’s story, HeLa’s story, the story of Henrietta’s immediate family, her descendants and the people of the town where she grew up.  Skloot had a particularly special relationship with Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter as they accompanied each other through Henrietta’s story and towards the completion of this book.

The style of narration fits with the nature of Henrietta and HeLa cells; one is the source of the other, and they have grown and entwined like the double helix of Henrietta’s DNA in the HeLa cells.

As well as telling the stories of the people in Henrietta’s life, there is a lot of science and politics in this book.  Skloot presents the information to the reader with consideration and depth, questioning without preaching.  Although she did stumble into a little inadvertent preaching while attending church with Deborah a few years back but that wasn’t really her fault…

This book delves into the ethics  of what it means to own your body. Skloot discusses this frequently throughout the book, citing cases other than HeLa as well as academics from the 1940s to 2009, when this book was published.  It really is an eye-opener, and got me thinking about issues that I’ve never considered before.

I’m no scientist so I’ll leave the sciencey bits for the book.  But here’s my two-penneth anyway:  Having read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, I do agree that medical research is essential, and should be carried out, provided it is done safely.  I’m sure there are many people who would happily donate their cells to research.  As one of the judges in this book states – once the tissue has left your body, it is of no use to you at all.  It is essentially waste.  So, if someone picks it up and uses it to advance research into potentially life saving treatments, what’s the problem?  However, if expelled cells are seen as just waste and therefore fair game to any scientist who comes across them, will humans become disposable objects that can be experimented on?  That’s not even as outlandish as it sounds – look at Nuremberg and still, over a decade later in 1954, Southam didn’t think twice before injecting cancer cells into the murderers and rapists locked up in Ohio Penitentiary (“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, page 147).

Scary stuff.

Whatever your thoughts or beliefs about the use of human tissue for research, Henrietta Lacks’ story and the story of the HeLa cells is so intriguing.  In the closing chapters of the book, Skloot tells us that at the time of press (2009) there were over 600,000 scientific articles published on HeLa.  A quick Google search tells me that at the time of press of this blog post (2014) there are well over 2.2 million articles published about HeLa cells. (I think. It could be 2.2 million mentions of HeLa on google but not scientific articles.  Not a huge amount of research has gone into this post. Soz.)

When it comes to consent, there are “ethical codes” and “guidelines”.  But, if it isn’t “law” there are no consequences if you break it.  Therefore, the guidelines are pretty useless.  Why can’t people just use their common sense and make decent, fair decisions?  And what about just being considerate, polite human beings? Manners cost nothing, people.

In conclusion, if you want a book that has:

a) a true story

2) some science, some history, some politics

c) the ability to get your noggin thinking about things it’s never thought of before

then this book is for you.

Enjoy.

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