Book Author: Rebecca Skloot
If you received a COVID vaccine, you’ve benefited from the life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skoot shares the story of Henrietta Lacks, an ordinary Black woman in 1951, living with five children in the USA. Henrietta became ill and went to Johns Hopkins Hospital for diagnosis and then treatment of advanced cervical cancer. It was there that cells from Henrietta’s cervix were removed for diagnosis. However, without Henrietta’s knowledge or permission, some of her cells were sent to a researcher looking to find immortal cells.
It turned out that Henrietta’s cells were immortal – meaning that replicated identically when grown in tissue culture. This characteristic is essential for tissue culture research. Her cells were so amazing that they have been used in more than 75,000 (and counting) research studies, contributing to the development of HIV and AIDS treatments as well as COVID vaccines.
Her cells were named “HeLa cells” for the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last name. Everyone in biological research, myself included, knew of them and likely worked with “HeLa cells.” Worldwide, people have benefited from the use of HeLa cells in research. However, in addition to not being asked for permission for her cells, it took 25 years for Henrietta’s role to be acknowledged.
The author, Rebecca Skoot, weaves Henrietta’s life story together with difficult explorations of ethical and class issues that existed in the 1950s and on through the remainder of the 20th century. She exposes the healthcare issues that sadly continue to this day for POC, Indigenous people and immigrants. Issues of informed consent for medical research are laid bare, in a time when informed consent did not apply to people who were Black and poor. It’s also a story of a remarkable discovery that enabled critical advances in research and treatments, such as COVID vaccines, that have saved countless lives. But more importantly, it’s the story of the family’s journey for justice and acknowledgement for their mom, their auntie, their grandma – Henrietta.