The first time I heard about this book was in Time magazine’s book review and I immediately added it to my wishlist.  It was also the first time I’ve ever heard of HeLa, that turned out to be one of the most famous words in research history. It’s the name of a cell line scientists have been reproducing since the 50s in order to develop and test treatments. It was used to discover the polio vaccine, it went up in the first space flight and even today it’s still one of the most used tools in labs around the world.

HeLa wasn’t spontaneously produced, it came from Henrietta Lacks, an un-sung heroine of science. She was a black tobacco farmer from whom in 1951 a doctor removed, without her knowledge or consent, a piece of her cervical cancer, which late became know as HeLa. She died shortly after leaving behind 5 children and over time her name was almost forgotten by the scientific community. In the early 90s, author Barbara Skoots became curious about the origin of the HeLa cells she was using regularly during her biological science studies and decided to write a book about them.

The Immortal Life… intertwines two stories. One follows the 10 years research Skoots did on Henrietta and her descendents and the other is about HeLa, the history of cell research and the ethical questions it raised.

Despite the emotional power of the fist storyline (and I’m always a sucker for the “human interest”, one of the reasons why I was curious about this book in the first place), it was the scientific bit that unexpectedly hooked me. Skoots’ outline of the history of cell research is written in a compelling way, even (or especially?) for laymen. Her insights on the past and present of informed consent, patients’ rights and donation of human matter for scientific and commercial purposes, were the highlight of the book for me.

Doctors in the States (have to look into the situation in Europe) don’t need patients consent to store and use human tissue discarded is surgeries. Once it’s out of your body, be it your placenta or appendix, you no longer have rights over it, even if researchers use it for profit. Many scientist fear the need for consent would only fuel endless legal battles and they are probably right, but shouldn’t donors also have their say? At least, and as many organisations demand, shouldn’t we be able to ethically object to certain types of research being done on our cells, such as bio-weapons? Interesting questions, interesting book. It seems Oprah also thought so, because she’s producing an adaptation for HBO.