Henrietta Lacks, a vibrant woman whose family describes her as caring and kind, receives a diagnosis of untreatable cervical cancer; the cancer is extremely aggressive because it is associated with HPV—human papillomavirus—and it soon kills her. Researchers take cells from a tumor in Henrietta's body without her permission. Named HeLa cells after the first two letters of Henrietta's first and last names, the cells prove to be immortal and become invaluable tools in medical studies.
Writer Rebecca Skloot spends 10 years researching and writing about Henrietta Lacks; she works closely with the Lacks family to learn about Henrietta's life, illness, and death and to uncover the truth about Henrietta's HeLa cells, which researchers sampled—unbeknownst to Henrietta or her family—and have used to make medical breakthroughs and earn enormous profits. Skloot also establishes a foundation to help Henrietta's descendants receive schooling and healthcare.
Deborah Lacks can't remember her mother, Henrietta, who died when Deborah was quite young, but she spends much of her adulthood trying to learn about her. Deborah, a passionate and determined woman of strong faith, works closely with Skloot to research her mother's life, find out how Henrietta's HeLa cells have been used, and learn the fate of her sister, Elsie, who dies in Crownsville Hospital.
George Gey is the scientist who first cultures, or cultivates, Henrietta Lacks's HeLa cancer cells and discovers the cells are essentially immortal. He gives out HeLa cells to researchers worldwide, enabling them to develop treatments that save innumerable lives.