HeLa – more than just a cell line.

March 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

In trying to remember if I’d ever read a non-fiction book I realized that of course I had, and, actually, that most were about science. But none have gripped me in the same way as the book I just finished. In just over 24 hours I had turned the last page of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and realised why it received such critical acclaim.

I tend not to enjoy harping on about a good book – I want to appreciate them for what they are; not dissect their every sentence, hunting for hidden meanings whose beauty and subtleties are only destroyed when you try to describe them.

But this book deserves every ounce of praise and every award it is given.

It describes the fascinating story of the woman whose cells have lived on for longer outside her body than she ever did herself. They have been flown into space, blown up in nuclear bombs and had just about every conceivable disease injected into them. They helped establish cell culture techniques and equipment; develop a vaccine for polio and unlocked some of the secrets of the world’s biggest killers.

Some of Henrietta Lacks' immortal cells

Some of Henrietta Lacks' immortal cells

And yet the poor, black tobacco farmer whose cervical tumour cells were distributed around the world never knew anyone had taken them. And her family was in the dark for decades following her death – in fact it wasn’t until researchers needed to test their DNA as well that the truth finally came out.

She was Henrietta Lacks, and those cells are the infamous HeLa cells. Cells that I used during my final year project as part of my undergraduate degree.  And not once did I question where they came from. I knew they were a cancer cell line, but I just sort of assumed that they were from a willing donor – I even remember, looking back, that I thought the person in question might still be alive. But after that, there’s nothing. Nothing else crossed my mind – it wasn’t even that I didn’t care – I just didn’t think; it was as if I saw those facts as almost inconsequential. I was doing research on a particular protein, and these cells were just the ones used in my project. That, as far as I was concerned, was that. They were a tool, like my pipette or the lab’s centrifuge.

Having read the book I’m ashamed of that thought. In becoming a scientist I was taught to question, to think and to delve that bit deeper. And now, as a would-be journalist, those qualities are no less necessary. So I’m left wishing that my younger self had been a little bit more inquisitive and a little less blasé about what it was I was using day-in, day-out for three months.

Skloot, however, did not dismiss the facts as quickly as me – on hearing of the immortal cell line, and the person behind it, she went on a quest to find out more. Her book is not only the story of those cells, and the life of Henrietta Lacks and her family; it is that of Skloot’s journey, which began in that biology class in high school. The determination she showed in spite of all the brick walls she came up against is truly inspiring.

Henrietta and David Lacks

Henrietta and her husband, David Lacks

The family Henrietta left behind were poor, knew nothing of their mother’s unwitting contribution to science and were never helped to understand. They met outsiders with fear and suspicion (and not surprisingly once you read more about their lives), but Skloot succeeded where many others had failed – she gained their trust, and particularly that of her daughter, Deborah. The bond between the pair is evident, as is Skloot’s respect for the whole family, which makes the book both believable and moving.

As a scientist I was amazed at some of the work achieved using this cell line, yet appalled at the ethics (or lack thereof) used in that research. But science aside the book is a genuinely riveting read, full of hugely likeable characters, whose stories it is impossible not to care about.

Skloot explains complicated scientific principles with ease, captures the places and people she meets perfectly, and writes in a way that is absolutely captivating.

She highlights so many underlying issues in patient care, the history of racism within the medical research and the questions of who owns our cells once we’re gone it would do it little justice to list them all here.

However, one of the reviews I read before purchasing the book sticks in my mind. Dwight Garner, of the New York Times, wrote: “I put down [the book] more than once. Ten times, probably. Once to poke the fire. Once to silence a pinging BlackBerry. And eight times to chase my wife and assorted visitors around the house, to tell them I was holding one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time.”

I can’t say it any better. And while I don’t have a fire or a BlackBerry, this book left my hands a similar number of times. Once to get off the tram on my way home from Waterstone’s. Once when I reluctantly gave in to sleep at about midnight last night. And numerous times to tell anyone who came near that I was enjoying it more than anything I’ve read in a long time, and did they want to borrow it after me?

But really, I suggest you read the book, rather than listen to me wax lyrical about it.

Image of HeLa cells stained with Hoechst 33258 is courtesy of TenOfAllTrades via Wikimedia Commons. Image of Henrietta and David Lacks is courtesy of the Lacks family, again via Wikimedia Commons (Henrietta Lacks’ ‘Immortal’ Cells).

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