Monday, January 6, 2014

The HeLa story: a dazzling journey of scientific enquiry and discovery

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot, published by Broadway Books, A Division of Random House, Inc. (2010)

Normally, I avoid reading reviews about books I'm about to read. With the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it was impossible not to be aware of the outpouring of positive press and accolades that this book has received since it was published in 2010. Critics have hailed it as a literary tour de force, both for its storytelling brilliance and its investigative research. Many publications, including Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and the Globe and Mail, named it Best Book of the Year.

The praise is well earned. This is a powerful work of non-fiction that tells the story of a poor African American woman named Henrietta Lacks, who died of cancer in Baltimore in 1951. She was 31. Before Henrietta died, a doctor removed two tissue samples from her cervix without her (or her family's) knowledge. Such a procedure wasn't uncommon during that era; the idea of informed consent didn't become a legal issue in the U.S. until 1957.

Miraculously, Henrietta's cells (which became known as HeLa cells) began to grow and multiply at an extraordinary rate. Scientists had tried in vain to grow cells like this for years. The fast-growing HeLa cells soon caught the attention of doctors and scientists, who wanted to use them to further their research into infectious diseases and for other medical studies. Suddenly, a mini industry in HeLa cells was born. According to Skloot,
"The Timing was perfect. In the early fifties, scientists were just beginning to understand viruses, so as Henrietta's cells arrived in labs around the country, researchers began exposing them to viruses of all kinds - herpes, measles, mumps, fowl pox, equine encephalitis - to study how each one entered cells, reproduced, and spread."
Henrietta's cells would eventually play a vital role in developing a cure for polio, cloning and gene mapping. While the cells paved the way for medical breakthroughs, saved countless lives and enriched many companies, Henrietta's family received no financial gain or compensation and remained poor. Sadly, the family only discovered the truth about Henrietta's cells years later.

To uncover the truth about the HeLa cell line, Skloot spent years researching the subject and ingratiating herself into Henrietta's family. At first, the family was suspicious of Skloot, whom they viewed as just another outsider looking to profit from Henrietta's story. Gradually, she earned the trust of Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, who serves as a gatekeeper to the family history and a liaison with her family.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot demonstrates a remarkable talent for narrative pacing and scientific explication. She takes readers on a journey of scientific enquiry and discovery that touches on issues of race, ethics, religion, politics and medicine, a journey that swings effortlessly between the past and the present. Along the way, she introduces us to the main players in this decades-old medical drama, including doctors, researchers, scientists, journalists, hospital officials and members of Henrietta's family. Skloot presents information in a factual, non-biased fashion and recreates conversations between the central figures, so that readers can decide for themselves who the real winners and losers were in the HeLa saga.

It's almost unimaginable that a story of this magnitude hadn't been told before the publication of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (there have been occasional magazine and newspaper stories about HeLa, but no single work told the complete story). Readers can be grateful that Skloot had the patience, perseverance and skill to do justice to a story that needed to be told, and to present it in such a compelling manner.

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