Monday, February 08, 2010
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" is Rebecca Skloot's first book. Lacks, who died of cervical cancer in 1951, is the source of the HeLa cell line, the first human cells able to reproduce on their own in the laboratory.
By the time of her death, researchers at Johns Hopkins University had been trying for years to find cells with such reproductive properties. Lacks' cells -- powered by something in her cancer -- were so remarkable that Hopkins shared them with scientists around the globe. A new industry of mass-producing human cells grew up around them.
HeLa cells have been used in experiments for decades, enabling countless scientific discoveries, including the polio vaccine and the discovery of chromosomes. The were blown up with an atom bomb and sent into space.
Still in use, they have been produced at mind-blowing volumes -- enough to wrap around the world three times. They've been called immortal. Yet as vitally important as they have been to science, few have thought about their origins.