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Year : 2011  |  Volume : 7  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 506

An Accidental Immortal

Chief Radiation Oncologist, Department of Radiation Oncology, Dr. Balabhai Nanavati Hospital, Mumbai, India

Date of Web Publication19-Jan-2012

Correspondence Address:
Nagraj G Huilgol
Chief Radiation Oncologist, Department of Radiation Oncology, Dr. Balabhai Nanavati Hospital, Mumbai
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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How to cite this article:
Huilgol NG. An Accidental Immortal. J Can Res Ther 2011;7:506

How to cite this URL:
Huilgol NG. An Accidental Immortal. J Can Res Ther [serial online] 2011 [cited 2022 Jan 26];7:506. Available from: https://www.cancerjournal.net/text.asp?2011/7/4/506/92001

Author: Rebecca Skloot

Publishers: Pan Books 2010

Publications: Crown Publications, Division of Random House, New York

Price: UK 7.99

HeLa cells, the first immortalized human cell lines were derived from a patient with cervical carcinoma. They have been a workhorse in innumerable labs since the time cells were immortalized. It is said that the number of HeLa cells manufactured so far can be placed around the earth three times over and they are still growing. Scientists in their quest for the truth rarely look at the human stories which go with their efforts. The story of HeLa cells is no different. HeLa, which stands for Henrietta Lacks, remained obscure for decades after her cancerous cells were immortalized and grown in the lab. The book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks", is an attempt to amend the collective omission of the scientific community. The book which has emerged as an enthralling narration of the human actors involves the immortalization of cervical cancer cells.

The story of Henrietta Lacks is one of the oppressed black women from Roanoke, Virginia. She was born Loretta Pleasant to eventually become Henrietta Lacks. No one knows the reason for this change in identity. The story of Henrietta and her family which unfolds in the book is typical of underprivileged colored community of USA of earlier decades of the twentieth century. Life was one of misery and penury. Henrietta grew up in a slave quarter in a crowded house. She married her cousin and gave birth to a child outside the wedlock. She also became a victim of gonorrhea and syphilis, which she contracted from her philandering husband. She was tough, god fearing and endearing. She was in her thirties when she suffered the cervical cancer. She was treated with radiation after a biopsy. The disease progressed like a wildfire only to consume her. She died of progressive cervical cancer.

Te-Linde was a well known gynecologist from Hopkins. He was determined to prove that there is a precancerous phase to invasive cancer. His resolve to do so had grown even stronger after he was booed out by his non-discerning peers. He wanted to grow cells from various stages of Cancers in the laboratory to prove his hypothesis. At the same time, George Gey (pronounced Guy) was developing methods to develop immortalized cells for cancer research. Earlier in 1943, a similar feat was achieved in mouse cells. Gey and his wife Margret had spent decades working to grow immortalized malignant cells. Te-Linde kept sending tissue cervical biopsy from his free wards to prove his hypothesis while Gey relentlessly kept innovating. Henrietta Lacks biopsy also landed in his lab, like many before. But this one was destined to be an immortalized one. HeLa was born in Gey's lab with Margret handling the culture work.

Two parallel stories of Henrietta Lacks and George Gey occupy the initial part of the story. Gey's death to pancreatic cancer, his failure to get a biopsy of his cancer to immortalize them as Gi-Gi cells and then his willing submission as an experimental subject contrasted with helplessness of colored Lacks! The later half of the book deals with Henrietta's family and the progress related to cell culture. The ethical concerns and human right issues are discussed succinctly in the evolving story of immortalized cells all in all.

It is a well written book which makes for an interesting read.


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