The end of the year holiday season is approaching and regardless of your religious affiliation (or lack thereof), you're probably going to have a little time on your hands for reading. Maybe relatives already are nagging you about what they can give you. Here I'll make a suggestion that won't break the bank and I can virtually guarantee you'll enjoy. ...but first I'll digress a bit, so stick with me.
Before medical research developed the tools to work more easily with dead/fixed human tissues, cell lines were a (THE?) major research tool of human biology, and they are still used for a wide variety of purposes. Anyone remotely familiar with tissue culture has heard of HeLa cells. I was first introduced to them in college in the 1970's. Although "immortalizing" cells to grow in culture is notoriously difficult and many cell lines have extremely complex growth requirements, HeLa cells are well known for their robustness. In fact, they are so easily grown that they often must be highly isolated from any other cell lines, or they will contaminate and "take over" other cell cultures. Stories relating to this are legendary in the cell culture lore. One told to me related to a cell line of a supposedly rare tumor sent to a US researcher from a lab in central Russia... you guessed it. They were HeLa cells. Others have noted that HeLa cells can be cultured from the countertop surfaces of labs that have been exposed to them. Amazing. HeLa cells have been into space. They have played pivotal roles in vaccine development and production, they have helped unlock the human genome and much, much more.
Most of us know that HeLa cells were derived from a squamous cell carcinoma of the cervix and many of us know that "HeLa" was derived from the patient's name. I was once told, erroneously, that the patient's name was Helen Lane. Of course, it was actually Henrietta Lacks, and she was an African American woman living in Baltimore who was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The rest as the say, is history. But the history has never been properly chronicled until now.
In her first effort as a writer, Rebecca Skloot spent 10 years researching this story and has created an amazing book entitled "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
" The book follows the discovery of all the fascinating details of Henrietta's life and cells, in part through the eyes of her younger daughter Deborah.
Jad Abumrad, host of the public radio show, "Radiolab" wrote an excellent review on the Amazon web site. The following are some excerpts from his review which may be read it its entirety here
"Honestly, I can't imagine a better tale."
"A detective story that's at once mythically large and painfully intimate."
"But what's truly remarkable about Rebecca Skloot's book is that we also get the rest of the story, the part that could have easily remained hidden had she not spent ten years unearthing it: Who was Henrietta Lacks? How did she live? How she did die? Did her family know that she'd become, in some sense, immortal, and how did that affect them? These are crucial questions, because science should never forget the people who gave it life. And so, what unfolds is not only a reporting tour de force but also a very entertaining account of Henrietta, her ancestors, her cells and the scientists who grew them."
"Rebecca Skloot tells the story with great sensitivity, urgency and, in the end, damn fine writing. I highly recommend this book." --Jad Abumrad
.... and so do I