The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Book Review – Thora Paul

Black Lives Matter

In the current times amidst the pandemic, adapting to the new way of life and the murder of George Floyd I think it is important to celebrate the accomplishments of Black scientists and people of minority backgrounds as well as those of other races.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I always seek to gain more knowledge about science and history. Reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot was an amazing experience and allowed me to learn about unity within the scientific community as well as unity between people irrespective of skin colour, level of education or health. After reading the book I had the opportunity to visit a laboratory at King’s College London where HeLa cells are still replicated today.

What is HeLa?

HeLa is an immortal cell line, used in scientific research even today, which were originally harvested from tumorous cells derived from Henrietta Lacks in the early 1950’s, just before she died. The cells were obtained without her knowledge and her family were notified decades later. Now it is important to obtain consent for patients. HeLa is an abbreviation for Henrietta Lacks. Many reports were written about the cells at the time, but scientists did not want to disclose her name. In 1954 Microbiological Associates began to distribute her cells around the world and so began the rise of the biomedical industry.

HeLa cells were the first cell line to survive and reproduce indefinitely outside of a human host. The cells were used in the research that led to the vaccine for Polio by Dr Jonas Salk as well as advancement in gene mapping, Parkinson’s disease, Mumps, HIV and Ebola. From HeLa cells scientists were able to determine that cervical cancer can be caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and because of this there is now a vaccine available to prevent cervical cancer in girls and women. The HPV vaccine has also recently been offered to boys, with the first dose offered from the age of 12, typically when in year 8 of secondary education. Originally Henrietta’s diagnosis was an epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix but was later revised to cervical adenocarcinoma which are more aggressive than epidermoid carcinomas.

“Replication is essential in science: a discovery isn’t considered valid if others can’t repeat the work and get the same result” The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, page 125.

My opinion

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in biomedical science and research.

In science there are no barriers as to where you come from, what your background is, your nationality or your age. You pursue your curiosity and, once you succeed, it drives you forward.

While Henrietta Lacks was alive she did not receive the recognition she deserved but her contribution to the field will live on and continues, even today, to improve the lives of many people. Her life mattered and so does yours.