Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: A book review

When I first heard about this book, it seemed like any other biography of a woman apparently unheard of. A chance look at the blurb caught my attention and I suddenly remembered where I had come by that name. Henrietta Lacks was the woman behind the famous “HeLa” cells.

For those not acquainted with the term, HeLa refers to a particular line of cells that have their origin from a tumour of the cervix of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman from Virgina, the United States of America. Henrietta succumbed to cancer of the cervix in 1951 at the age of 31 years, but her tumour cells still live, and thus have the unique distinction of being the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory. First grown in Johns Hopkins hospital of Baltimore in the United States of America, they are of immense interest because till then, scientists had only unsuccessfully tried to keep cells alive outside the body, in laboratories. HeLa cells have been of utmost importance in the field of biology. As Skloot observes, “Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukaemia, influenza, haemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; and they’ve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers.” Also helpful in the discovery of the vaccine for poliomyelitis, millions of HeLa cells can be found in almost in any cell culture lab in the world.  And this is only a very few from the enormous list of discoveries Henrietta’s cells have aided in.
The book tells the story of how HeLa cells came to exist, and how the woman they belonged to has also, seemingly, been immortalised. Scenes from Henrietta’s life have been recreated with the aid of author Skloot’s interviews of family members, legal documents and medical records belonging to Lacks. The author chronicles the commercialisation of this miraculous cell line that has been surviving even now. Apart from being informative, this book has tried to look into the emotional side of how Henrietta’s family has handled things. The author has also attempted to hint at how being black has affected the Lackses. What I note with utter delight is that this book does not, for once, let the reader get perplexed with the usage of technical terms. The author has kept her narrative within the reach of the ordinary reader who can devour the text without any background knowledge in biology.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not just a biography: it provides a holistic look into all aspects concerning Lacks, her family, and how her cells have benefitted mankind. The book tries to capture what the Lackses have faced ever since Henrietta’s cells caught attention, for it has come with its fair share of troubles: the family claims their contribution has not been duly acknowledged. What I relish most about this book is the author’s evident passion at bringing to the fore the legacy of the woman who has lived on even after her death. Reading recommended.
Rating: 4/5