The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
author: Rebecca Skloot
read by: Cassandra Campbell, Bahni Turpin
genre: nonfiction audiobook
publisher: Random House Audio, 2010
length: 12 hours 30 minutes
source: purchased from audible.com
In a nutshell:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating history of cell culture, the real woman behind HeLa cells, and the impact of HeLa research and development on her family.
When I graduated from college in the 1980's and began a career in clinical pharmacy at a teaching hospital involved with investigational drug trials, I became aware of HeLa cells and their importance in medical research. Now, nearly 30 years later, I have come to realize that HeLa was, in fact, a living human being. Her name was Henrietta Lacks.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of a young black woman who died from a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951. Cells from her tumor lead to an exciting scientific breakthrough when they were cultured and grown in a laboratory. Eventually, these cells were commercially mass-produced and marketed throughout the world, and a new era in medical research began. The cell line, still used today, played a critical role in many medical advances. However, Henrietta's husband and children knew nothing about it.
Rebecca Skloot was in close contact with Henrietta's family, especially her daughter Deborah, during the years of research preceding publication. This book is as much their story as Henrietta's or Rebecca's. Skloot was present to assist and chronicle their experience as an understanding of Henrietta's cells, their scientific impact, and long-hidden family history was gained.
Skloot's research and the Lacks' remarkable journey raise many questions of medical ethics, and put into perspective just how recently current standards of informed consent, privacy, etc. have come into practice. Healthcare inequities are also brought to the forefront. While large sums of money were being made on the HeLa cell line, Henrietta's descendants struggled to afford basic health insurance. Book clubs are sure to find a variety of topics for discussion here ranging from medical ethics, faith, and science, to class, racism, and journalism.
Cassandra Campbell has long been one of my favorite readers. Her voice in this production imparts an even more pronounced 'human quality' to the narrative. This is by no means a dry, scientific text.
Even if you have little interest in cell culture, medical research, or ethics, there is still enough human drama to keep nearly anyone enthralled.
Very highly recommended.