Leaf through the pages of almost any life sciences journal, and you will come across advertisements for HeLa cells, living laboratory tools that have formed the basis of an incalculably vast amount of biomedical research since the early 1950s. Retailing at anything from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for a small vial, different versions of this indispensable elixir are hawked by laboratory supply companies the world over. Many of these products' consumers have long been aware that there is a human story behind HeLa's blandly commercialised ubiquity; now Rebecca Skloot's remarkable book has appeared to fill in all the details. The moniker 'HeLa' is derived from the name of a young African-American mother of five, whose agonising death in a Jim Crow era charity hospital gave rise to a quiet revolution in medicine. In January 1951, at the age of 30, Henrietta Lacks was admitted to the 'Coloured Only' examination room of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, complaining of abdominal pain and irregular bleeding. A week later she was back to receive radium treatment for cervical cancer. Before operating, the surgeon shaved a small sample of tissue from the tumour on her cervix and sent it off to the laboratory of George and Margaret Gey (pronounced 'Guy'), two research scientists who were engaged in a frustrating quest to keep human cells alive outside the body.
LRB 10 June 2010 | PDF Download