The week in radio: Tale of a medical marvel gets the right treatment on America's Radiolab

  • @FionaSturges

I'm still trying to work out how, this week, I came to be transfixed by a podcast on the subject of tumours. There are, I'm sure, cheerier ways to pass a weekend, such as shaking the crumbs out of the toaster or tying down one's dustbins in preparation for the not-quite storm of the century.

Yet here I was, on a wind-whipped Sunday, my eyes wide and my stomach lurching with a mixture of wonderment and disgust, listening to the presenters and science geeks Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from America's Radiolab inspecting the tumour – yes, the real-life festering ball of cells – that had killed the 19th-century President Ulysses S Grant. This growth, now housed in Washington's National Museum of Health and Medicine, had been cut from Grant's throat after he expired and placed in a cigar box (Ulysses loved a cigar) for posterity.

Listeners of the US station WNYC are into the 12th season of Radiolab but, being catastrophically behind the times, I'm only a recent convert. Its aim is to reflect on matters scientific and philosophical with a lightheartedness that is missing from most science-based radio programmes. Drawing on the charisma of its presenters and the show's trademark sound design – a mix of ambient soundscapes, looped effects and overlapping dialogue (it sounds annoying but it isn't) – Radiolab does this beautifully.

In the past the show has looked at the emotional capabilities of animals, the elasticity of time and the endurance levels of athletes. Definitive answers to conundrums are rarely offered. The joy here is in the pontificating.

Better still, there's no Melvyn Bragg invoking the names of ancient philosophers in a voice that sounds like he can't be bothered to finish the sentence, nor the usual cabals of desiccated academics all trying to flog their latest book. That we have no comparable programme in the UK is, I realise now, a terrible oversight.

Radiolab's latest on tumours is actually an updated version of a piece aired four years ago which reported on the contagious cancer threatening Tasmanian devils, and the case of a man who had spent his life sexually aroused by safety pins and was having a fine old time until a doctor found a tumour in his brain and removed it, resulting in pins suddenly losing their lustre. "So sometimes tumours can be rich, beautiful and desirable," concluded Krulwich.

But the real reason for the update was to revisit the case of Henrietta Lacks, a 30-year-old tobacco farmer from Baltimore who discovered she had cervical cancer in 1950. Doctors took a sample of her tumour and sent it to a researcher who found that the cells continued to grow outside the body. Now known as HeLa (pronounced "Hee-lah"), Lacks's cells went on to become one of the most important tools in medicine, contributing to research in IVF, gene mapping and the development of a polio vaccine.

Here, with the help of author Rebecca Skloot, Radiolab told the very human tale of a woman who died in agony in 1951 unaware that her cells has been taken and would be bought and sold and shipped around the world. It looked at the impact on her children who for years were unaware that scientists were experimenting on their mother, and who struggled to get an explanation when they found out. Skloot also revelled in the happy ending, arrived at two months ago, as the Lacks family finally became part of a committee that will handle requests for continued research on HeLa cells.

That it took 63 years to get to this point is disgraceful. That this tale is now being told to an audience of millions is nothing short of wonderful.