Book cover – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, from Wikipedia

A wonderfully researched book into the history of the HeLa cells, the foundation for most of the cellular reasearch and break throughs that we’ve had in the last half century. The author Rebecca Skloot objectively presents the dilemma of the ethics of preserving human freedom, choice and dignity in the face of the progress of science which demands faithfulness only to itself.

The book starts with the life of Henrietta Lacks, born in 1920, in Virginia, one of 10 children, into the life of Tobacco farmers, growing in her Grandfather’s home-house with a bunch of cousins. She married Day, the cousin she literally grew up with. The Second World War created a huge demand for steel and led Henrietta and her family to move to a Steel Plant in Turner Station, Maryland with the help of her cousin, Fred Garret.

Just before the conception of her fifth child, when Henrietta started feeling a knot in her womb, she knew something was terribly wrong. It wasn’t until the birth of Joe, and the when the pains got unbearably worse that she went to Johns Hopkins and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The book then chronicles the growth, diagnosis and treatment of Henrietta’s tumours and her eventual death at the age of 31. The detailed description of the scientific knowledge available in the 1950s, of carcinomas, their treatment, the condition of hospitals all bring before our very eyes how little knowledge was available, how little we knew how to battle giants like cancer and other lethal illnesses.

Unbeknownst to Henrietta and her family, a sample of her cancerous cells were sent as part of a then routine procedure to head of Tissue Culture at Johns Hopkins, George Gey, who was attempting to grow the first immortal line of human cells. Gey’s lab colleagues had spent hours and years in the lab, culturing cells, meticulously following sterilizing rules, only to see the cells die after a few hours. Till they came across Henrietta’s (HeLa)cells. (Each sample was named after the first two letters of the patients first and last name). Not just a few hours, but even after two days, they were multiplying with a ferocious intensity, and finally the tissue culture unit at Johns Hopkins were able to rejoice they had made history with the first line of immortal human cells – with Hela.

Hela was initially sent to researchers across the globe, and later on was cultured and sold commercially, and went on to be the research material for many vaccines like the polio and small pox, and other experimental procedures as sending them off to space, exposing them to radiation and many other such potential life saving and life-enhancing initiatives. On the flip side, the author also beautifully brings out the ethical fuzziness that surrounds the use and exploitation of human tissue without consent. Can an excised mole be considered still the patient’s possession? Should hospitals and pharma companies make money off a patient’s discarded tissues? Is it ethical to study the tissues/DNA of a person without their consent? The book brilliantly raises questions, but does not make the mistake of providing answers, but instead takes us through what transpires in the family of Henrietta Lacks, when they find out almost 20 years later, that their mother’s cells now circle the globe and beyond.

This book is well worth a read, even if you are not a Biology major. Rebecca Skloot’s untiring efforts at getting to the truth behind Hela is commendable. However, I would have liked to understood better what made these cells “immortal”. The explanation of the telomerase that help rebuild the telomeres was helpful, but why it was so only in Henrietta’s cells? Her exposition of the medical practices prevalent in those times was an eye-opener to me, and most of the time horrifying. Let me give you an example – “Pneumoencephalography was a technique developed in 1919 for taking images of the brain, which floats in a sea of liquid. That fluid protects the brain from damage, but makes it very difficult to X-ray, since images taken through fluid are cloudy. Pneumoencephalograpghy involved drilling holes into the skulls of research subjects, draining the fluid surrounding their brains, and pumping air or helium into the skull in place of the fluid to allow crisp X-rays of the brain”. The book is of course more than just the retelling of the grisly medical practices of those years, and while legislation surrounding hospitals, health care and drugs have advanced to a great degree, we must remember that the Hippocratic oath and the Nuremberg Code are not binding. They are not law.

We may feel safe this century, because of the laws that protect us. But we must realise the laws are there, because of the abuse of Man. The more powerful and selfish a man gets, the more he seeks to destroy and exploit the weak and powerless. William Golding did not have to shipwreck a few boys on an island to show us the “Beast” in Man. Man’s depravity is measured by the laws our society and goverment passes (in order that we might not tear each other up).However, the Prophet Isaiah promised us hope in his book, that depravity would disappear when Man chooses to replace sin in his heart with the knowledge of God.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.”

“They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.”