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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of my all-time favorite books. It combines many of my biggest interests: excellent storytelling, well-researched scientific accuracy, and insight into poverty- and race-related social injustice. Skloot is a skilled author who clearly cares not just about the story but about the people involved, and the result is nothing short of a treasure - for both the scientific community and the broader public.

The book tells the tale of the most well-studied human cell line in history, HeLa cells, and in so doing it traverses the complicated history of the actual human lineage these cells are a part of. HeLa cells are named for the woman from whom they were harvested, Henrietta Lacks. They were taken without her consent in 1951, before patient consent was part of the cell line equation. At that time, culturing human cells was still a bit of a Hail Mary, and scientists were woefully unconcerned with the ethical ramifications of actually succeeding in their efforts (hmmm, foreshadowing much, CRISPRed human embryos?).

Well succeed they did, and HeLa cells became the most widely dispersed human cell lineage in history. They yielded countless scientific and biomedical breakthroughs that benefitted the (affluent) world, all while the Lacks family battled persistent poverty and - the ultimate tragic irony - a lack of both health care and the education to comprehend their deceased family member's cell lineage.

In this compelling narrative, Skloot navigates the disparities in education and health-care access that underlie the story of HeLa cells. To be clear, she is not a social scientist, and she proposes no systemic improvements. But it is likely because of her efforts that some longstanding wrongs were righted; steps are now being made to include the Lacks family in future decisions pertaining to their genetic information and other outcomes of HeLa cell studies.

 

Multiphoton fluorescence image of HeLa cells stained with the actin binding toxin phalloidin (red), microtubules (cyan) and cell nuclei (blue). NIH-funded work at the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research. Credit: Tom Deerinck. Image and caption reposted from the NIH Director's Blog.

Multiphoton fluorescence image of HeLa cells stained with the actin binding toxin phalloidin (red), microtubules (cyan) and cell nuclei (blue). NIH-funded work at the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging ResearchCredit: Tom Deerinck. Image and caption reposted from the NIH Director's Blog.

Want to know more about how human cells are kept alive in the laboratory, and what scientists use them for? How about a more in depth discussion of ambitious science first and ethics as an afterthought? Or perhaps an explanation of how multiphoton fluorescence images are acquired? Let us know in the comments below, and these may be topics for future posts.

Top photo by Lauren Shipp, featuring Echo the cat

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