The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Rebecca Skloot

Summary of: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By: Rebecca Skloot

Introduction

Embark on a remarkable journey through the dramatic life of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells in Rebecca Skloot’s book, ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.’ By delving into this captivating story, you’ll learn about Henrietta’s life, her battle with cervical cancer, and how her extracted cancer cells became the crucial turning point in medical research. The book also touches upon the ethical issues surrounding tissue research, patient consent, and the commercialization of human cells. Join us as we explore the monumental discoveries and controversial practices that surrounded the life of Henrietta Lacks and her priceless contribution to the world of science and medicine.

Henrietta Lacks: A Medical Revolution

Henrietta Lacks, a young girl from Roanoke, Virginia, changed medical science forever. After discovering a lump on her cervix, she was diagnosed with epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, stage I. Johns Hopkins used highly intensive radium treatments on her, leading to her death in October 1951. Though Henrietta’s treatment was unsuccessful, her cells were taken without her knowledge or consent and used for medical research, leading to countless medical breakthroughs.

The Birth of Immortal Cells

In the 1950s, George Gey invented the roller-tube culturing technique to keep human cells alive outside the body. His most significant invention led to the growth of the first immortal human cell, HeLa cells. With the cells’ aggressive nature, they spread quickly, doubling every 24 hours, aiding research on polio and cancer that would help in curing these diseases.

In the early 1950s, doctors and scientists struggled to keep human cells alive outside the body to conduct research on illnesses like cancer, polio, herpes, and influenza. George Gey, head of tissue culture research at Johns Hopkins, invented the roller-tube culturing technique, a cylinder that rotated slowly, accommodating test tubes. His tireless search for a way to keep cell cultures alive outside the body led him to his most significant invention. The rotation mimicked the motion created by the fluids around the human body, necessary for cell survival, favoring the HeLa cells’ growth. Henrietta’s cancer cells named HeLa were the first immortal human cells to survive the technique, doubling every 24 hours faster than the cells in Henrietta’s body. Their aggressive nature assisted in the extensive distribution of HeLa cells into multiple test tubes, aiding research on polio and cancer that would help in curing these diseases. Gey’s and Kubicek’s abilities to see beyond the impossible led to the birth of immortal cells.

The HeLa Revolution

After Henrietta Lacks’ death in 1951, her cancer cells were mass-produced in a project aimed at finding a cure for polio. The HeLa cells were a viable option for research as they were cost-effective, able to survive in a culture medium, and highly susceptible to the polio virus. The HeLa Distribution Center was established, which facilitated the growth and distribution of the cells for research labs and soon evolved into a lucrative institution exploring various illnesses.

The Forgotten Source of a Medical Miracle

The spread and importance of the HeLa cells were unprecedented, yet their source was largely forgotten. When the author stumbled upon articles presented at a medical conference, she contacted Roland Pattillo, the conference organizer and Henrietta’s family friend. Despite the family’s reluctance to discuss Henrietta or her cells, the author persisted and eventually travelled to Henrietta’s hometown to locate distant relatives. The family’s mistrust stemmed from the belief that the doctors had taken Henrietta’s cells without her permission, along with the history of exploiting black Americans in medical studies like the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Sadly, the author was stood up by Henrietta’s immediate family, but the journey shed light on the forgotten source of a medical miracle.

The Mysterious Disappearance of Henrietta Lacks

After Henrietta Lacks’ death, her family faced financial struggles. Her children questioned their father about their mother’s death but were discouraged from asking further. Decades later, Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, demanded to know about her mother’s identity and demise. The author traveled to Henrietta’s hometown and talked to her distant relatives and doctors, leading to a closer relationship with the family. Through her research, the family also discovered more about Henrietta’s medical contribution. However, some family members remained reluctant to talk about the HeLa case and its impact.

Confronting Distrust in the Medical Industry

The book discusses the historical tensions and myths surrounding the relationship between black people and the medical industry. Despite documented cases of exploitation of black people by scientists, many stories circulating within the black community were fictional, such as the case of “night doctors.” However, medical experiments had indeed been conducted on slaves to test new surgical techniques. With hospitals and research centers offering money for bodies, black people’s distrust of the medical field intensified, especially since many were unable to afford medical care. Johns Hopkins, located near a poor black area, contributed to local black people’s suspicion of the school. The tension between black people and the medical industry drove Henrietta’s family’s suspicion of doctors, researchers, and anyone else interested in Henrietta and her cells. The myth of “night doctors” obscured Johns Hopkins’ mission to provide medical care for all.

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