Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

HeLa Cells

Book Cover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThis book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks’ life, her family, and how HeLa cells have made her immortal. Admittedly, I haven’t taken a Biology class since Grade 9. Although I thought that the Biology teacher was wonderful, I did not want to do any more dissections. Still, I’m surprised that I’ve never heard of HeLa cells until now. After all, those cells were instrumental in the development of the polio vaccine and numerous other medical treatments. Plus, they came from a black woman! The nonfiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was published in 2009, and has even been made into a movie.

The Origin Story

HeLa cells are named after Henrietta Lacks. She was born in Virginia in 1920. After several visits to John Hopkins hospital complaining of abdominal pain, physician Howard Jones diagnosed Henrietta with cervical cancer. She returned to the hospital several times for radiation treatment, and during those treatments, doctors took two samples of her tumours. These samples were cultivated by Dr. George Otto Gey, one of the researchers at the hospital. He was excited by the ability of Henrietta’s cell samples to grow, whereas other cells generally died after a certain number of divisions.

Dr. Gey shared the cells widely, and they have been cultivated and cloned all over the world. Although Dr. Gey registered no patents, researchers and corporations hold over ten thousand patents involving HeLa cells. The cells grow aggressively, and have been used extensively in scientific research. Researches continue to use them to study diseases and human sensitivities.

The Lacks Family

Henrietta married her first cousin David (Day) Lacks and they had 4 children. One of the children was developmentally disabled and died in a mental hospital. It was about 20 years before her family found out about HeLa cells. Subsequently, the Smithsonian Institute and the National Foundation for Cancer Research have recognized Henrietta Lacks’ contribution to science and honoured her family. The Lacks family have had no financial benefits from any sales of HeLa cells or associated technology. Ironically, Henrietta’s children have found themselves at times unable to afford medical care.

Immortal Cells

It’s interesting to me that although Henrietta’s children share her genome, information about the genome of HeLa cells have been released to the public. Her medical records from her treatments at John Hopkins have also been reported. Even when researchers got blood from Henrietta’s family, they didn’t receive consent for using it in research. I understand that times have changed, but are people better protected now by rules for informed consent?


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