Literary Rebel - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Literary Rebel, Sherri Caldwell, blogs about books, reading and literary events in Midtown. This week, Midtown Book Group ventured forth on a field trip, in search of HeLa cells at Georgia Tech.

Henrietta Lacks Draws Book Lovers into the Lab at Georgia Tech

Midtown Book Group ventured forth on a field trip this month in search of HeLa – the infamous cells at the heart of the highly-acclaimed science biography, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

HeLa = Henrietta Lacks

As a modern society, we would not enjoy many of the miraculous advances of the last sixty years in medical science without the unwitting contribution of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman with five children, who lived in Baltimore in the 1940s. In 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed cancer cells from Henrietta’s cervix, without her knowledge. She died from the cancer several months later. Remarkably, her cells did not. Unique to Henrietta Lacks at that time, for whatever reason, her cells survived and grew in lab culture. The cells divided and multiplied, billions of times over, and became the basis for many advances in medical science, based on research, study, trials and use of the so-designated HeLa cells.

For twenty years, Henrietta’s husband and children did not know about her surviving cells, or the multibillion-dollar industry they facilitated. The family mourned the loss of wife and mother. One of the daughters had been institutionalized in a mental hospital, where she died at age 15. The other children were farmed out to relatives, abused and neglected. They grew to adulthood in abject poverty. Even after they learned about their mother’s contribution to science, the family never had access to basic care, education or health insurance, much less the medical advances or medications their mother’s cells helped to create. 

Interest in HeLa, and the tragic story behind the cells, led young writer Rebecca Skloot to begin researching Henrietta’s biography. Although the family was initially resistant and suspicious, Skloot connected with Henrietta’s only surviving daughter, Deborah, in 2000. Together, they went through the history, interviewed doctors, researchers and family members, and traveled into the past to piece together the science of HeLa and the biography of Henrietta Lacks. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was published, to instant critical acclaim, in 2010. 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Midtown Book Group Selection – August 2012

Midtown Book Group enjoyed a unique opportunity with this book selection, with long-time book group member, Dr. Christine Payne, a professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Georgia Tech. Dr. Payne offered a tour of her laboratory to see the cell storage and growth facilities and observe HeLa cells in action under the microscope. Although scientists and researchers use other cell lines from many different sources, HeLa is still one of the most commonly used cell lines in laboratories around the world.

After a brief lecture and slideshow, the group enjoyed a tour of Dr. Payne’s lab in the Molecular Science & Engineering Building at Georgia Tech where they “met” Henrietta Lacks’s HeLa cells, live under the microscope. It was a fascinating evening for non-scientists, and the scientists were happy to entertain guests in the lab, and even joined in the book group discussion immediately following the tour.

Fascinating Science – Tragic Biography

The success of the book (and the forthcoming HBO movie from Oprah Winfrey) is due in large part to the author’s deftly balanced approach to a remarkable story, offering a unique blend of technical writing in layman’s terms and human interest in the family history. Skloot captures the interest of scientists and non-scientists alike, and manages to fulfill the very different expectations of each group, leading to great discussion and debate about informed consent and the evolution of ethics and procedure in medical science and research; scientific advances v. privacy and rights of the individual, family and heirs; and contribution v. compensation.

By the way, why were the HeLa cells immortal? Dr. Christine Payne suggests that it was in part due to the proclivity of cancer cells to survive and multiply very rapidly and in part due to timing and circumstance. With the current state of research and experimentation in 1951, the HeLa cells were cultivated at the right time and the right place to succeed where so many other attempts had failed, because scientists had been working on developing growth media and other conditions for success. Of course, Henrietta Lacks’s family and others believe there are more spiritual and metaphysical reasons for her immortality – who knows?

Midtown Book Group rated The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks very highly, with 4 out of 5 Stars. [The complete list of Books We Have Read, with Midtown Book Group Ratings, is updated each month and can be referenced here: Midtown Book Group – Books We Have Read.]

For more information about Midtown Book Group, sponsored by the Midtown Neighbors’ Association, please visit Midtown Book Group on Yahoo!Groups. Midtown Book Group welcomes new members and visitors!

As a related footnote (not entirely coincidental): The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is the 2012 Freshman Reading book at Georgia Tech. All freshmen are expected to read this book prior to starting fall semester classes. It will be incorporated into some first-year courses, as well as form the basis for several campus programs and events. Based on the success of the Midtown Book Group tour of the Payne Lab, incoming freshmen with declared Chemistry Majors will enjoy the HeLa Lab Tour, too. More information about this program, and the book, currently at 20% discount (as of 8/10/2012) is available at Barnes & Noble/Georgia Tech at 5th & Spring in Midtown.

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