BY Rebecca Skloot
In 1951 a woman named Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins University Hospital for treatment of cervical cancer. Unbeknown to her, during her treatment doctors took samples of her normal cells and those of her cancerous tumor. Unfortunately, Henrietta Lacks lost her battle with cervical cancer, but the sample of the cancerous tumor lived on. Lacks’ cancerous tissue was divided by technicians in a lab at Johns Hopkins Hospital into dozens of one-millimeter squares and placed into test tubes labeled HELA (short for Henrietta Lacks). Within a week Lacks’ cancerous cells began multiplying at an alarming rate. The doctors and technicians were amazed at what they were witnessing and had previously thought was impossible. The cells doubled their numbers every 24 hours. The HELA cells were the first human cells found to be “immortal”, they were able to reproduce indefinitely outside of the human body.
Henrietta Lacks’ cells are still alive today and were vital in the development of the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, advances in invitro fertilization, gene mapping and cloning. Much money was made from these HELA cells, however, the Lacks family was not aware of their existence until over 20 years after Henrietta’s death. At the time the book went to press, most of Henrietta’s children could not afford health insurance and were heavily in debt. Author Rebecca Skloot’s book reads like a novel. She touches upon medical ethics, science, cancer, racism as well as poverty. The science and clinical portions of the book are done in layman’s terms, not laced with scientific jargon. A truly fascinating read!
– posted by Lisa J., Readers’ Services