This is a non-fiction book about a black woman, Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells that were retrieved from her cervical cancer in 1951. The story weaves in and out through narration of science and the politics of medicine and race and the painful impact on Lacks family of this tragedy and the legacy it left for science.
There are about one hundred trillion cells in our bodies. They make up our tissues, muscle, bone, blood, organs. Each cell consists of the cytoplasm and the nucleus. The nucleus holds all the genetic information that is, each nucleus of each cell contains an identical copy of the person’s entire genome. Cell division or mitosis makes it possible for new cells to grow. But one small mistake in this division process, one enzyme misfiring, one wrong protein activation makes the process to go haywire and often leads to cancer. Henrietta’s cancer cells were taken from her tumor and were freely distributed among scientists, for research and were called HeLa cells.
A HeLa cell is considered an immortal cell line because it is found to be extremely durable and prolific and survives as long as basic cell survival conditions are met. These hardy cells were freely distributed among scientists, for research. Researchers were exposing them to viruses of all kinds – herpes, measles, mumps, pox, encephalitis and even polio to study how they reproduced and to find cures. After the proliferation of research on HeLa cells, the researchers began to develop other cell lines, quite unaware that many of these lines were contaminated by the hardy and prolific HeLa cells. HeLa cells have an active version of telomerase during cell division that prevents the incremental shortening of telomeres that are implicated in the process of aging. Lacking this aging process, the HeLa cells circumvent the Hayflick Limit, which is the limited number of cell divisions that most normal cells can undergo before becoming senescent.
In fact, Skloot narrates how in the year 1966, a geneticist, Gartler announced in a conference that there was a technical problem in their field and then dropped what has since come to be known as the HeLa bomb. He explained that many of the commonly used cell lines show a rare genetic marker which is present almost exclusively among African-Americans and is also extremely rare among them. Gartler further went on to explain how they all seemed to be contaminated by HeLa cells. This was a huge blow to research efforts, calling into question results from hundreds of studies conducted with billions of dollars. Scientists are more cautious today and they work with cell cultures, after checking the ancestry. By some estimates, if one could pile all the HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they would weight more than 50 million metric tons – the equivalent of at lest 10 Empire State Buildings.
Side by side, while telling this incredible story of science, Skoolt also shares the story of Henrietta’s illness and the fate of her family and the ethical issues involved. Almost 60 years after Henrietta’s death, her body lies in an unmarked grave though her cells are still among the most widely used and are bought and sold by the billions. Many discoveries and scientific insights have been gained from the research coming out of work on her cells. Henrietta’s family however, have not benefited from any of this research and have in fact, been sometimes hounded and harassed by media. Skloot asks thought-provoking questions like who has the rights over a patient’s tissues, blood, how race played a role in the treatment that Henrietta received and the amount of information that her descendants received, and how she tried to get their trust and make it right.
This is a must read book for anyone working in the field of medicine, genetics, biology etc. and for people working in the area of law pertaining to ethical issues in healthcare, and also for those interested in social science of inter-cultural behaviors.