August 2, 2010 4:23 am

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, Pan Macmillan RRP£18.99, 384 pages

 

Rebecca Skloot has written one of the great medical biographies of our time. Its subject is not a famous doctor or scientist but a patient, Henrietta Lacks, who died almost 60 years ago in obscurity.

A tissue sample taken from the virulent cervical cancer that was to kill Lacks provided researchers with their first source of “immortal” human cells, which multiply indefinitely in laboratory culture. These “HeLa” cells played a key role first in developing the polio vaccine and then in many advances of late 20th-century medicine, from IVF treatment to genetic mapping. Even today, trillions of HeLa cells populate the world’s biology labs – often the best research tool available.

Skloot, a professional science writer, tells the medical side of the HeLa story clearly and competently, though she could do more to tackle the scientific mystery of why these cells proliferate more powerfully in culture than any others known to biology. What makes the book remarkable, however, is its social history and above all the heart-rending tale of the Lacks family.

Lacks, who grew up in a poor black tobacco farming family in Virginia, was living in Baltimore in 1951 when cancer struck her down at the age of 31. The white doctors treating her in the “coloured” ward of Johns Hopkins hospital – then and now one of the great US medical centres – took a sample of the tumour to give to their colleague George Gey, whose laboratory was on a mission to find human cells that would live in culture. No one sought Lacks’s consent to remove her tissue for experimentation, as a doctor would today. Fair enough at a time when patients had few of the rights we take for granted. Skloot avoids the mistake of judging 1950s practice by 2010 standards.

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What was not fair was the subsequent failure to inform the Lacks family what had happened to Lacks’s cells or let them know about the heroic role HeLa played in medical and pharmaceutical research. The family’s quest for information – and success through Skloot’s dedicated inquiries over several years – forms the heart of the book.

Before Skloot came on the scene in the late 1990s, Lacks’s husband, children and large extended family had not been totally ignorant about her posthumous life in the world’s biology labs. Despite the requirements of patient confidentiality, her identity as the source of HeLa began to leak out as early as 1953, though the name was sometimes distorted into such forms as Henrietta Lakes or even Helen Lane.

More accurate journalism produced a 1976 Rolling Stone article and then a 1996 BBC documentary about Lacks. But her family lived in a mist of fear, anger and misconception – fuelled by deep-seated fears of the white medical establishment in black America. As Skloot recounts, oral history in Baltimore told terrifying tales of “night doctors” who kidnapped people for medical experiments. When the Lacks family hear garbled accounts of UK scientists using HeLa for cloning research, they imagine clones of Lacks walking the streets of London. They contrast bitterly their own inability to afford medical insurance with the wealthy scientists manipulating their mother’s cells.

For several years the Lacks family, bruised and suspicious, refused to talk to Skloot. But eventually her persistence won the confidence of Lacks’s daughter Deborah. Eventually a sympathetic scientist at Johns Hopkins invites Deborah and her brother Zakariyya into his lab to see HeLa cells for the first time; their wonderment provides one of the great moments of the book.

With The Immortal Life already a bestseller in the US, Henrietta Lacks is at last gaining recognition. And her family will finally see some benefits: Skloot has promised to channel some of the book’s proceeds into a charity, the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, to provide scholarships for her descendants.

Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor

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