” Rebecca Skloot’s debut book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, defies easy classification. With a sensitive heart, a knowledge of science, an investigative reporter’s zeal, and a novelist’s skill, Skloot combines biography, medicine, science, detective thriller, social critique, and medicolegal inquiry. This layered approach is at once moving, sad, funny, and deeply unsettling. The book is not perfect, but ultimately it is an irresistible read.
At the center of the book is the HeLa cell line. The story of HeLa begins in 1951, when Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old black mother of 5, received treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital for cervical cancer. Without telling her, physicians removed a dime-sized slice of Lacks’ tumor and sent it to a hospital laboratory, where George Gey had for years been unsuccessfully trying to grow human cells outside the body. The cells were marked “HeLa” for Henrietta Lacks, and as he had done with … ”
“HeLa cells are termed “immortal” in that they can divide an unlimited number of times in a laboratory cell culture plate as long as fundamental cell survival conditions are met (HeLa cells have an active version of the enzyme telomerase during cell division, which prevents the incremental shortening of telomeres that is implicated in aging and eventual cell death). HeLa cells persist because they have always been helped along by a certain human element in science, an element connected to emotions, egos, a reluctance to admit mistakes. HeLa cells are apparently so aggressive in growth that a slight contamination by these cells can result in their overwhelming other cultures. ”