Arguably one of the most popular science books ever written is heading to the big screen. Tech Insider calls The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks “the most important science book of our time.” And with Oprah Winfrey cast as Henrietta’s daughter, you will be hard pressed to avoid hearing about this upcoming movie. (Here’s a list of other great science reads. The Immortal Life is #14 and George Church’s Regenesis comes in at #17.)
The HeLa book, as fans refer to it, tells the story of Henrietta Lacks and her remarkable cancerous cells that were harvested in 1951 and are still in use in laboratories around the world. They were essential in developing the polio vaccine and went up in a rocket so scientists could learn what would happen to cells in zero gravity. The Smithsonian.com says they were used “in scientific landmarks such as cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.” These cells have been busy.
Cells usually divide about 50 to 70 times, with telomeres getting shorter and shorter until the cells become senescent (a topic covered earlier this week on Signals) or die. Experts still can’t say with certainty why Henrietta’s cells haven’t behaved like this.
My book club read Rebecca Skloot’s book when it was published in 2010 and we found it fascinating. It has several engaging story lines running through it and it’s the type of nonfiction that reads as fiction. The best kind. Whether you’re a scientist or not, it’s a good read. I’m tempted to pick up my copy again now that I work in the stem cell field, but maybe I should just wait for the movie.
In anticipation of going to see the movie yourself, here’s the story of Henrietta Lacks from author Rebecca Skloot. Consider this a refresher or the Coles Notes.
There is also this animated version that briefly summarizes the science, the situation and the ethics.
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