A tale of immortal cells

in #book7 months ago

I like a good science book. This is one my daughter (a biologist) had in her collection. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of a woman who made great contributions to science after her death.


Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who lived in Maryland, USA. After having five children she contracted cervical cancer that would kill her at just 31. She was treated at the Johns Hopkins Hospital that was still segregated at the time. A doctor took some cells from her tumours and it was standard practice to try and grow those, but scientists struggled to make them last long. Hers were the exception and were very prolific. They went on to be used by laboratories all over the world to study diseases and general cell biology. They were named HeLa cells after the patient they came from, but few people knew her actual name.

Writer Rebecca Skloot learned about Henrietta at school and decided her story needed to be told. She spent years try to talk to the family who resisted as they had had many journalists after them and felt they were being exploited. Some of them still feel they should have been paid something from the vast sums made from trading in the cells. The book has a section on the ethical and legal issues around this.

There is a fair bit of the science in the book, but a lot of it is about the people, including some of the scientists, but mostly Henrietta's family. As someone who has limited experience of life in America it gave an insight into the tough life poor black people still struggle with. The writer travels around with Henrietta's daughter Deborah who wants to understand what happened to her mother. She did not know for decades that these cells were still alive and being used. That has to be a shock when you know little of cell biology. She worried her mother was being cloned and experimented on. Given some of the experiments that were done on black people back then these were not such fantastic ideas.

The book has contributed to Henrietta being recognised in various ways.

It is quite an emotional read at times, but very compelling and well written. A good combination of social history and medical science.


Sounds like an interesting read. what happened in the end, did the daughter get some kind of resolution? Amazing how one woman's death could contribute so much to research.


Should I give spoilers?

The author established a foundation and the family get something from that. Deborah died before the book came out, but she saw some progress. There are statues of Henrietta in a couple of places and at least one park named after her. You have to wonder how many other people made similar contributions and are forgotten. The scientists get the recognition and I'm sure most act for the good of all, but they need to be careful not to exploit those who are vulnerable.


Glad the family got some type of recognition. Funny you say that re scientist. I was having a discussion with a scientist friend of mine with regards to the politics in the team and certain parties taking credit where it's not due. Of course not all scientists would do this, but it also highlights that all types of people are scientists. And although many may have good intentions, if you the glory seeker type you won't care if the right people are getting credited or compensated where they should. What exactly happened with Henrietta's case is a mystery in itself. !PIZZA

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Wow, that is very interesting. What kind of things did they discover from her cells? You said they are still being used today? That is crazy. Thanks for sharing!

Her cells can be used for testing drugs and checking if products are safe. Some info here. You can understand that her kids might think she is still alive and suffering in some way. Science always needs to be ethical.

Ah, okay. So it isn't that her cells were special. It's just they were on hand because they had been donated. I will checkout that site when I get a chance.

Actually they are special as other human cells they tried did not survive long in cell culture. It is actually her cancer cells that are used. Many other people had cells taken for trying this.

Hmm, okay. Thanks for that.

Ah. I remember reading about this woman. The HeLa cells reproduced quicker in space which is what fascinated me.

Interesting story.

It's a very informative and interesting book and one of the few non chick flicks I read in recent years. Now I think of cells in a different way. I wrote about the book as well last year, actually it would be two years ago now.

The science is fascinating, but the human story in this book is very touching. My daughter knows a lot more about the subject, but does not actually work with those cells.

I have thought it would be cool to have a Hive version of Goodreads, but we would have to use ISBN codes or something to link reviews of the same book. I could propose that as another project for someone.

The origin of one of the most used and polemic cancer cell lines used in research
HeLa cells

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