Sunday, September 30, 2012

..of Cells, Biology and Cloning. Or Not.

Name - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author - Rebecca Skloot
Publisher - Pan Macmillian
Price - 325 INR
Pages - 377

If you think, biology is "not your type", this one is a must read!

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is the story of a woman who revamped the course of medical history. Except that she didn't know it. Neither did her family or children or husband or friends. 

Medical science progressed, and companies continued to make millions off Henrietta's cells, while her family continued to struggle in abject poverty, little education, occasional crime and a lot of injustice. 

The epic "hands-on-her-hips"
file photo of Henrietta Lacks 
Henrietta was a 31 year old, poor African-American tobacco farmer - native of South Virginia, mother of five, caregiver of many more - when she she died, quite suddenly, of cervical cancer, just eight months after her first hospital visit. This was waaayyy back, in 1951.
She was treated at the John Hopkins Hospital in Maryland, and waaay back then, treatment (both medical and otherwise) for the 'colored' wasn't exactly in black and white. 
The doctors did some. And then they didn't do some. As a part of what they did do, a small coin-sized sample of her tissue (cancerous and normal) was taken to the lab for culturing. 

Crazy balls!
Cancerous cells, put simply, grow like 'crazy balls' (remember those?) pounce. On and On and On. Just as the balls don't lose momentum for a long, long, time, cancerous cells never grow old. So they continue to divide like crazy throughout their extended youth! And this of course messes with our system and causes waay too many aberrant cells in our body (cancer).

Picture this: An India-Pakistan final cricket match, and a nail-biting close. We need five runs off the last ball of the last over when Sachin T smashes living daylights of the shot! Woohoo, and we clinch the title!
Those were somewhat the feelings of George Gey - the researcher in whose lab Henrietta's cells were first grown. Scientists all over the world had been trying to grow human cells in the laboratory since long and Henrietta's cells were nothing short of miracle. They clinched a win for his lab, his love for science, and an never-to-be-forgotten landmark in the history of medical science.

Slowly after that, Henrietta Lacks (HeLa) cells became the standard in medical practice. They were used for everything from drug-testing to cell-cloning, from vacuum subjection (they were sent up in space!) to radiation treatment. They have been reproduced, reused, standardized, treated, tested, twisted, tackled, even tampered with.. in every imaginable and unimaginable way. In fact, it is estimated that there is no person on earth who has not benefited either directly or indirectly from her cells.. Talk about impact.

Ironically though, it was her own family which was left, ortracized and oblivious, to all of these developments for over 20 years. 

Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's youngest daughter,
was just six, when
she lost her mother to cervical cancer
In Henrietta's youngest daughter, Deborah Lacks words: "If our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can't afford to see no doctors?"
I don't think anyone - from the doctors at John Hopkins to the writer of this book had an answer.

And so, this is a harrowing tale of racism and injustice, science and progress, the world and its ways, scientific discovery and emotional depth, biology and ethics, and yes, the crazy cells that changed our world for good.

The writer's decade long research, with writers, scientists, her family, friends, neighbors, and lawyers deserves all the praise that it can possibly get. Rebecca Skloot managed to weave entire scenes, sequences and series from Henrietta's life - she helped us re-live her joys, weep quietly in her travails, pray silently for soul and most importantly, know the person behind the marvel called HeLa.

Deborah Lacks, and her brother Zakariyya, as they saw their mother's cells under a microscope
for the first time. She pressed a cold vial of the cells to her lips and whispered "You're famous [mother]. Just that nobody knows it."
PS. I am totally in awe of the writer, her writing style and her persistence to bring alive this story to every reader! Science Journalism is so totally awesome. Here is the link to a small interview that she gave shortly after the release of her book.. :) 

Happy Reading - also, if anyone is in Delhi/Gurgaon/Chandigarh and would like to read this book, I will be happy to pass on my copy.. Let me know! 


  1. Awesome !

    BTW... if the book lending offer can be extended to the poorer-NCR cousin- Noida, in fact to poorer still -- Greater Noida... Then I would like to stake claim !

  2. its true that a great deal of medical research in past has been at expense of poor people, with racism & injustice has being an inseparable part of it. The book seems to capture that is evident from ur review...shd be a nice read..thanks for letting us know..

  3. wasnt aware of this part.. sure we have to study about HeLa but had no idea of the past behind it...

  4. Varneet: Thanks, Well.. the book must be treated like a South Delhite! Ha, let me know if that works :p

    Sukhraj: Thanks - yes, this tale is particularly moving.

    Roshan: Yes, we must.
    Thank you for stopping by at Untitled! Hope you enjoyed the read :)

  5. This is a very interesting read. Thanks, I would lijke to read the book.


Liked it or not so much..? Happily agree or vociferously disagree?
Please do leave a note - I'll be very happy to hear from you :)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...