Stolen Cells: Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Show Notes for Bonus Episode 2.1

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2009)

Our very first Movie Magic pick for Season 2 is Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. When Paige first recommended this book for Movie Magic, Jennifer immediately agreed. Jennifer had actually read this book for the first time earlier in 2019, which is perhaps embarrassing since the book was published in 2009 and was on the New York Times Bestseller list for six years. So we were a little behind. Regardless, Skloot’s work is an excellent piece of science writing and the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family is frankly incredible.

Taken far too soon from her children by a horrifically aggressive cancer, Henrietta’s cancerous cells turned out to be one of the greatest boons ever given to modern science. Her cells are immortal, reproducing endlessly as long as they are fed, and allowed for generations of scientists to make breakthroughs and discoveries that have saved millions of lives. However, these cells were taken without proper consent or knowledge, and this fact has since prompted heated debates on the ethics of modern genetic research – something in which everyone living today has a stake.

Quick Links from the Episode

  • To learn more about our author for this month, you can visit Rebecca Skloot’s website.
  • Skloot also started the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which provides scholarship to descendants of Henrietta, or descendants of others subjected to historical research without consent.
  • Paige Downey Presents Fun with Comics is our new segment that appears monthly during our Movie Magic episodes. This month, Paige presents Saga, by Fiona Staples.
  • You can find Fiona on Instagram and Tumblr. Also, Marvel and DC aren’t the only sheriffs in town – don’t sleep on Image comics!
  • A relatively recent Wired article breaks down where we are currently at with laws governing genetics in the United States.
  • The LawSeq project is dedicated to compiling all laws related to genetics and genetic research in the United States (state and federal) and their site is a fantastic resource for learning more about this topic.
  • The Washington Post published an excellent article on the experiments done on Puerto Rican women for the pill. Jennifer was incorrect in the episode in remembering this occurred in the 1970s, it was actually in the 1950’s!
  • To purchase any of the books mentioned in this month’s bonus episode, head on over to our Bookshop store!

Main Points from the Episode

  • When did you first learn about Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells? Jennifer only learned about this amazing story when she first read the book last year. Paige actually found a short description of HeLa’s story in her college biology textbook, but has no memory of learning about it then. However, a few years ago, she did run across a few articles that mentioned immortal cells.
  • Is it ethical to take someone’s cells for research without their knowledge or consent? You think this is a trick question? The obvious answer seems to be a resounding no. However, the reality is that for decades this was a common practice in the medical field. Paige and Jennifer rant about this quite a bit – the first of several rants about ethics in this book. See the quick links above for more information about what is actually in the [law]books about this currently.
  • Was taking the HeLa cells without proper consent justified? You can thank Paige for this really difficult question, and BBE was torn over the answer to this one. Research on HeLa cells has literally saved millions of lives – we can thank them for polio vaccines, HPV vaccines, AIDS research, cancer research, etc. etc. etc. until the end of time. This certainly tips the scales in favor of this action being justified (though not really ethical). However, the researcher who originally took these cells was not aware of what a contribution they would make. Jennifer waffles back and forth on this one, but Paige comes down on the side of not being justified as the ends never justify the means for her. Both rant about the importance and meaning of informed consent, a critical issue in this arena.
  • What does this book teach us about the power dynamic between the medical field in the United States and minorities or people of color? If you didn’t already know, historically communities of color have been disproportionately treated poorly by the medical profession in the United States. Skloot’s book does a great job illustrating how individual instances of mistreatment can promote mistrust in entire families or communities, as well as providing many other examples of larger experiments on people of color that have contributed to suspicion of the medical profession.

We know why you really tuned in though, it was to see which one we liked better: book or movie! Not surprisingly, Jennifer and Paige preferred the book. We both went into the movie with extremely low expectations. It wasn’t a big budget production released in theaters or anything of the sort. While we love Oprah, seeing her listed in the cast also seemed cause for concern. However, we needn’t have worried at all. The movie adaptation heads in a different direction than the book, focusing almost purely on the human element: the story of Henrietta, and her daughter Deborah’s search for answers. The cast was truly excellent, and the movie did a wonderful job of portraying the relationship between Deborah Lacks and Skloot.

That being said, the book provided so much more information that explained the science behind why Henrietta’s story was important. This is perhaps unfair to a movie, which only has a couple hours or so to convey several hundred pages of written content. But what can we say, we’re book people! Movies better really blow us away to win out. Either way, we would recommend reading the book AND watching the movie.

This image shows HeLa cells in different stages of cell division.
This beautiful photograph of HeLa cells in metaphase and telophase is courtesy of the archive of Josef Reischig.

Coming up next is Paige’s all time favorite book ever: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. If you are enjoying the podcast, please consider leaving us a review, and to keep up with all the BBE news, follow us on social media. If you are interested in supporting the podcast, head on over to our Bookshop store, or visit our Patreon (linked below). Until next time!

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