THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS, by Rebecca Skloot. Crown, 369 pp, $26.
Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in a "colored" hospital ward in Baltimore in 1951. She would have gone forever unnoticed by the outside world, if not for the dime-sized slice of her tumor sent to a lab for research eight months earlier.
Lacks' cancerous tissue was divided by technicians at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore into dozens of one-millimeter squares, cultured in test tubes in a witch's brew of chicken blood and cow fetus and labeled "Hela," short for Henrietta Lacks.
Taken without Lacks' knowledge or consent, the HeLa cells changed medical history: They were the first human cells found to be "immortal," able to reproduce indefinitely outside of the human body, writes Rebecca Skloot in her riveting book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."
"Henrietta's cells weren't merely surviving, they were growing with mythological intensity," Skloot writes. "They kept growing like nothing anyone had ever seen, doubling their numbers every 24 hours."
Skloot, a science writer, has been fascinated with Lacks since she first took a biology class at age 16. As she went on to earn a degree in the subject, she yearned to know more about the woman, anonymous for years, who was responsible for those ubiquitous cells.
Lacks was born in Roanoke, Va., on Aug. 1, 1920. Motherless by age 4, she grew up picking tobacco at her grandfather's farm in Clover, Va., and later moved with her husband and family to Turner Station in Baltimore County, Skloot tells us. Lacks was 31 when she died, leaving behind five children, including Deborah, the book's main character, through whom we experience the family's hurt, outrage, sorrow and, ultimately, pride.
HeLa cells have been shipped around the globe and deployed in all manner of research: most famously, the cells were used to test the Salk polio vaccine; they helped make Deborah Lacks' antidepressants and blood-pressure pills; they led to injection techniques used for in vitro fertilization and gene therapy. Hela even rode along with astronauts to outer space.
And, of course, money was made from HeLa cells, but not by the Lacks family. Skloot delves into complicated, still-unresolved issues of whether patients should profit from tissue removed from their bodies.
Skloot never trips over her complex story lines, managing to weave a science thriller, the grim history of medical research without consent on poor blacks and a testament to the power of family into a satisfying, bittersweet whole.
HeLa cells had been merrily multiplying for more than two decades before the Lacks family knew they existed. When they were finally contacted by Hopkins researchers in June 1973, it was to get their DNA samples to find genetic markers for Hela, not to test them for cancer, as Deborah believed.
By the time Skloot comes on the scene, the family, particularly Deborah, is bitter, suspicious and wants nothing to do with the reporter. Winning the Lackses' trust is a slow process.
Over a decade of research, Skloot's deepening bond with Deborah, who pines for the mother she can't remember, transforms them both. Learning about her mother's illness and Hela is painful yet empowering, as Lacks struggles through books about cell biology, learns to surf the Internet and accompanies Skloot, whom she calls "Boo" and "my reporter," in search of medical records.
Skloot is moved, too, by this warm and resilient family. "The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science journalism, and race," Skloot writes.
More than 30 years after Henrietta Lacks' death, researchers used HeLa cells to unlock the mystery of how her cancer started and why the cells never died, writes Skloot. A German virologist in 1984 found that the HeLa cells in his lab tested positive for multiple copies of the virulent Human Papilloma Virus 18. Research on those cells would play a role in the development of the vaccine that now protects women and girls against cervical cancer. I imagine Lacks would be proud.