It is one of the most exciting books of 2010. Just wait for the award season to come around and watch The Immortal Life of Hentietta Lacks stack up the honors. The reviews have been stellar and its author, Rebecca Skloot, has been on a four-month book tour using broadcast media, grand rounds at medical schools, social media and even Stephen Colbert to tell the story of Henrietta's immortal cancer cells.
Lacks was a poor black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. As was standard at the time, her tissue was taken for research without her consent while she was being treated in the charity colored ward at Johns Hopkins. No one knows why, but her cells have been sort of invincible and multiplied trillions of trillons times. Yet while her cells have become immortal, her descendents - husband David and five children - have lived a life of poverty and without basic medical care. It is there where one finds the unbelievable irony of Henrietta's story: her cells have brought forth great advances in biomedical research while her family is not able to buy drugs for illnesses that their mother's cells have helped make possible. HeLa cells (dividing in the video above), as they are known in laboratories around the world, are superstars. They went into space on the first manned mission and were used by Jonas Salk, MD, to test the first polio vaccine. HeLa cells have helped lead to advances in chemotherapy, gene mapping and drugs for Parkinson's disease among others.
I spoke with Rebecca Skloot for a 1:2:1 podcast while she was in the middle of her book tour. I think she called me from North Carolina. From all the great reviews she's received I thought one review, in The New York Times, really crystallized why the book is such a powerful read: "....It floods over you like a dam break as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of Erin Brockovich, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The Andromeda Strain."