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Life Saver

Rescuing Henrietta Lacks.



How fine is the line between science fiction and fact? When the subject is the survival of a set of human cells after the death of the individual who contributed those cells, that line can be fine indeed. Consider the case of the tabloid the Weekly World News, which once ran an article about one such individual and titled it "The Immortal Woman!" That article was sandwiched between stories about a telepathic dog and a half-human, half-alligator child.

How fine is the line between science and religion? Depends on how you look at it. Henrietta Lacks is either a marvel of science or she is an angel sent by God.

Lacks' cell line — known as HeLa — was the first, in 1951, to survive and reproduce in a laboratory, and it's the most successful and longest-living (and still living) cell line in history. Those cells played a critical role in the development of the polio vaccine. They've been tested in stem-cell research. They've been used to study in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping. They've been hit with toxins, radiation, and infections, and they've been rocketed into space to observe the effects of zero gravity. In earthbound terms, if you were to weigh all of the HeLa cells ever grown (a number that runs in the trillions), they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons. Laid end-to-end, they'd measure more than 350 million feet. They can even float in air, contaminating laboratories and other cell lines, or, angel-like, they can do God's work by helping others.

Scientists have helped themselves to those cells. Biotech companies have helped themselves too — and earned healthy profits. Patents involving HeLa cells number more than 17,000. But the story of those cells and the woman who (unknowingly) contributed them as a patient at Johns Hopkins has only now come to full light. The book is called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown), and it's by Rebecca Skloot of the University of Memphis.

Skloot's built a career on writing about science for a general audience, and she's made a name for herself in the field of creative nonfiction, which makes the life (and afterlife) of Henrietta Lacks a perfect vehicle for Skloot's narrative skills. But it's taken the author years to research and to write, because it's taken real singlemindedness for Skloot to earn the trust of Lacks' surviving family members. They've had good reason to be mistrustful of the medical profession and of reporters asking questions — despite the assurance of one researcher, who told Skloot that Lacks "will always be such a famous thing."

But Henrietta Lacks was no such thing. She grew up the descendant of slaves on a tobacco farm in southern Virginia. Then she traveled to Baltimore with her husband in search of a better life. And she lived a better life, until she died of cervical cancer in 1951 after a series of radiation treatments in the segregated wards of Johns Hopkins. But before she died, a sample of her cancer cells were obtained, and they survived and they multiplied at an enormous rate.

Was Lacks and her husband informed that a sample had been taken? No. Were the children of the couple ever adequately informed of the science behind the use of the HeLa cells? No. Have those children, grown to adulthood and difficult lives of their own, ever profited financially from the use of those cells? No.

These are issues of bioethics that Skloot explores, and they're issues still being argued. But in the latter half of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, issues aren't so much the focus. Lacks' formidable daughter Deborah and troubled son Zakariyya are, along with other members of the extended family.

Skloot's included too in this narrative. And how could she not be? We follow Deborah and the author in search of the records of Deborah's sister Elsie, who died at the age of 15 in what was the Hospital for the Negro Insane in rural Virginia. We watch as a researcher introduces Deborah and Skloot to the HeLa cells for the first time. And we witness, as Skloot witnesses, a dramatic laying-on-of-hands that transfers the "burden" of the HeLa cells from Deborah and onto Skloot herself. That "burden" includes the author called upon during a church service to address the congregation, when the author admits to readers to having never had a religious bone in her body.

The body: the site of "immortal" life-saving cells and equally undying soul-saving faith? Skloot's book is fascinating on both counts.

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