Science Book Spotlight

‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rachel Skloot

If you’ve studied biosciences, chances are you’ve heard of HeLa cells. They were the first human cells to be successfully cultured in vitro and the Hela cell line has been instrumental in countless ground-breaking discoveries from the development of the polio vaccine to genome mapping. The benefits of an immortal human cell line to science are huge, but what are the costs?

HeLa cells where alpha tubulin, actin and the cell nucleus are detected with fluorescent dyes.

Henrietta Lacks is the name of the Black US-American woman from whose cervical cancer cells HeLa cells were first cultured. She began treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, the only hospital in the area that would treat Black patients, shortly after the birth of her fifth child in 1951. During this time, tissue samples were taken without her consent and the cells used as part of an attempt to culture human cells in the lab. Hers were the first cells to successfully grow outside the body, but throughout the entire development process of the cell line, only very misleading snippets of information about what her cells were being used for reached Henrietta’s family. 

In this book, the reader joins Rebecca Skloot on her journalist’s journey to uncover the story of Henritetta Lacks, the development of the HeLa cell line and the impact this has had on her children. It’s a fourth wall-breaking, Russian doll of stories that frequently switches time and place in a way that I found occasionally tiring but essentially riveting.

False-colour scanning electron micrograph of a HeLa cell showing filopodia extending away from the cell.

‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ explores the institutional racism in science and medicine that is present in almost every element of the history of HeLa cells from 1950 to present day. Some reviews have criticised how much Skloot includes herself in the story. I agree that there could have been less page-time dedicated to how the author felt about the story she’s supposed to be telling, however, I did enjoy learning about the journalistic process she went through to research and write the book. 

This book has so much to offer, but one of the main things it left me with was just how embedded science is in society, no matter how far removed it can seem at times. The story of the Lacks family is a stark reminder of what can happen when the human side of science is overlooked.

Image credits:

Featured image from wikipedia

Stained fluorescence micrograph of HeLa cells from Kevin Mackenzie, University of Aberdeen. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). Source: Wellcome Collection.

SEM HeLa cell image from Anne Weston, Francis Crick Institute. Source: Wellcome Collection.

Written by Isobel Hirst, CryoEM RPG at University of Leeds