The healthcare debate is often focused on cost burdens associated with caring for poor and low-income Americans. But as science reporter Rebecca Skloot makes clear in her new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, if it weren't for one poor woman and the contribution of her prolific “HeLa” cells, treatments for an endless list of diseases, including polio, leukemia, Parkinson's disease and influenza, would only be a dream. “HeLa” comes from the first two letters of Lacks' first and last name.
HeLa cells were the first ever to be cultured and endlessly reproduced in laboratories for the purposes of medical research. According to Skloot, researchers had been trying for decades to reproduce human cells in a culture but had failed. Because they were taken from an aggressively growing cancer tumor, HeLa cells were different. Scientist discovered they reproduced an entire generation every 24 hours.
Today, HeLa cells are one of the first boundary-leaping discoveries biology students learn about, but few have ever learned the story of the woman who made such life-saving discoveries possible. Lacks was an African-American working-class wife and mother of five who lived in Baltimore. She died of cervical cancer in 1951 while still in her 30s, but not before her physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital took a culture of her cervical cells. Those prolific cells, known as HeLa, are still reproduced and sold worldwide for use in medical research.
Lacks, like a number of other African-Americans from her era, had no idea her body would be used for medical research. As Skloot's books reveals, neither she nor her family were ever beneficiaries of her significant legacy. In fact, many of Lack's family members are today struggling and unable to obtain health insurance or access to care even while their mother's cells continue to advance lifesaving cures.