So much medical research today depends upon laboratory-grown human cells which allow researchers to perform repeatable controlled experiments that mimic the human body. During the first half of the 20th century, medical researchers raced to discover and successfully culture these "immortal cells" - cells that duplicate themselves perfectly, continually, and efficiently.
The first successful immortal cells, HeLa cells, were taken in 1951 from Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American woman with cervical cancer. These miraculously duplicating HeLa cells, were instrumental in finding the cure for polio and continue to be used for research involving HPV, AIDS, and cancer. However, Lacks's cells were taken before concepts of medical consent and patient privacy gained currency, and as a result, she never knew that cells were taken from her cervix to be used for research. And despite the profitable nature of this medical research, Lacks's surviving family members today live in poverty and without adequate medical coverage.
Science writer Rebecca Skloot researches the story of Henrietta Lacks's life and family, the scientific community of the 1950s, and the ethics of tissue research - and in doing so, provides a snapshot into the lives of poor African Americans from the 1950s to the present day that helps to dramatize the changes in medical research procedures.
Skloot's informal and humorous writing style makes the book entertaining, yet it also provides a sensitive look into the life of Henrietta Lacks and her family. She acts as equal parts reporter - gathering information about Lacks - and teacher - explaining to both the Lacks family and general readers about the impact of HeLa cells on medical research. She makes a strong point explaining the disconnect between the routine nature of tissue collection during a doctor's visit and the multimillion dollar medical research industry.
Overall, this book is perfect as assignment reading for high school biology classes and is also highly recommended for those who are interested in issues of race and class, and how they tie into medical research in the United States.