Genre: Non-fiction, science

Notes: Kudos to Skloot for having the patience of a monk – I never would have been able to deal with this family and actually getting the story.  It took her ten years!  As in a decade.

Review: Again, I apologize for being a crappy updater.  Things are nuts at work, and I tend to post at work for some reason instead of at home.  Go figure.

This book is fantastic.  I love science and biology and DNA and all that stuff, but don’t know all of the nitty gritty details of how cells replicate, virology, and how cells can be used to test drugs.  But that didn’t matter while reading this book.  “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” reads like a novel – if it wasn’t true, I’d swear Skloot took some creative liberties.  But the importance of the HeLa line of cells (HEnrietta LAcks) is well documented in science textbooks since the 1950s and 60s.

This book tells the amazing story of the HeLa cell line.  Ini the 50s, scientists we searching for an immortal cell line – something that wouldn’t die in the lab and would keep generating and generating new cells so they could grow enough medium to test drugs.  Time and time again, the cells would quit replicating and die off (cells actually have a pre-programmed amount of times they will divide (about 50) and is designated by the length of the telomere at the end of the cell).  But Henrietta’s cells has a virulence that scientists had never seen before.

Unfortunately, that virulence meant that Henrietta died from a mean strain of cervical cancer.  MEANNNN.  Like one day she was fine, but felt a lump in her abdomen.  A month later she was dead.  Cancer is basically uncontrolled cell division and these cancer cells took over her body.  While going in for treatment, doctors at Johns Hopkins took a sample from her cervix (without telling her) and that (unbeknownst to her and her family) became the infamous HeLa line of cells.  You can seriously buy a vial of HeLa cells even today – all I had to do was google “Buy HeLa cells.”

Skloot’s book looks more at the human impact of the cells, rather than the scientific impact.  She delves into Henrietta’s life and the children she left behind.  Who was this woman?  Why can’t her children afford health care?  If Henrietta’s cells provided the medium for huge scientific advancements, shouldn’t her family get some recognition by the health care community?

Bottom Line: If you like science, read this book.  It doesn’t get too technical and provides some interesting insight on human tissue regulation today.  Definitely creates some interesting conversation!