The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Paperback, 313 pages
2010 Broadway Paperbacks
When we hear the names of pills that cure, we usually do not ask how it came to be. We are simply not interested or have no time to research. We are simply hopeful with the promises of cure, and continue with our struggle to get cured. This may be perhaps because pills' names are not based on the name of a person who has contributed to its formulation. Science wanted to appear scientific which often translates to precision, disinterest and .
In this book, the tissue sample taken from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks was named HeLa and she was identified as a woman who eventually died of cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 31. This footnote in science textbooks and discussions is the springboard of author Rebecca Skloot to ask who is that woman. It eventually became a personal mission for her to know more.
Hela was called "immortal" because the first tissue sample which has the cancer cells of Henrietta divided so aggressively and infinitely that it solved the problem of most researchers looking for tissue samples to do drug testings at a time when the existing a normal human cell is known to divide only 50 times and dies, a Hayflick Limit.
Because HeLa fell in the lab of George Gey who operated the same as a genius-in-chaos and evetually invented a machine from scraps that rotates immitating the flow of blood in the body and later developed techniques to grow HeLa in a lab, a serendipitous meeting started. Then, HeLa was distributed by mail or in transit anywhere in the world that it is needed by researchers. Researchers grew Hela in their own labs and eventually, a company saw the commercial value of growing HeLa and selling it to researchers who need it and who need not go through the hassle of growing their own. George Gey was happy that his role of providing HeLa was off loaded to the company because he can proceed with his research.
It was later learned that HeLa was infected with a deadly strain of HPV (human papillovirus) and has an active telomerase during cell division which prevents shortening of telomeres that is related to the aging and eventual cell death. I'm no science geek but I grasped the science part of the book.
But this book is not about science alone. Its heart is the story of Henrietta through the lives of her five children after she died. Her daughter Dorothy "Dale" who grew up motherless and in an abusive environment searched for her mother, and sister who died in an institution at the age of 15 during her lifetime. None of them knew where she was. Lawrence, Sonny and Zakarriya carried their own burden. What is so fascinating in this storytelling is the commitment of the author to her mission of putting a face to the HeLa story. It took her a decade since her first call to the family to eventually do the book.
Lastly, ethical and legal issues on consent of patients in using their removed tissues during operations for purposes of research are put forward in this book. Then in the 50's and by 2010 when the book was out, consent is not necessary though suggested that it better be secured. This is very important, though not a social issue here in the Philippines. None of same case laws appear in our jurisprudence yet.
A piece of Journalism meets literature. Well done book debut for Ms. Skoot.