Dwight Gardner reviews The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks , a new nonfiction book that explores the curious and disturbing intersection of race, poverty, bioethics, and medical progress:
The woman who provides this book its title, Henrietta Lacks, was a poor and largely illiterate Virginia tobacco farmer, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves. Born in 1920, she died from an aggressive cervical cancer at 31, leaving behind five children. No obituaries of Mrs. Lacks appeared in newspapers. She was buried in an unmarked grave.
To scientists, however, Henrietta Lacks almost immediately became known simply as HeLa (pronounced hee-lah), from the first two letters of her first and last names. Cells from Mrs. Lackss cancerous cervix, taken without her knowledge, were the first to grow in culture, becoming immortal and changing the face of modern medicine. There are, Ms. Skloot writes, trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body. Laid end to end, the worlds HeLa cells would today wrap around the earth three times.
Because HeLa cells reproduced with what the author calls a mythological intensity, they could be used in test after test. They helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, Ms. Skloot writes. HeLa cells were used to learn how nuclear bombs affect humans, and to study herpes, leukemia, Parkinsons disease and AIDS. They were sent up in the first space missions, to see what becomes of human cells in zero gravity.
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