Tuesday, March 30, 2010

An Immortal Story: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry. More than twenty years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same.” –Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of the most intriguing, informative, and heartfelt nonfiction books I have read in a long time. From the first line on the cover (above) to the final sentence on the last page, my whole being was attuned to the incredible—and sometimes tragic—story of the origin and reach of HeLa cells. Not having been a science-focused student, I was not immediately familiar with what HeLa cells were—and how integral a part of medicine they still are.

Rebecca Skloot accessibly and lyrically details the history of HeLa cells--and the woman behind them--in her book. Briefly, the first immortal (self-regenerating) human cells to ever survive in a petri/culture dish were taken from the body of an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks in Baltimore, Maryland in the 1950s at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Once it was discovered that these cells survived more than a few days in the lab, they were dispersed across the country—and eventually across the globe—to other medical researchers. The HeLa cells were a part of inventing the polio vaccine and testing the effects of atomic bombs on human cells; they were sent up into space to see how human cells would react there and used in gene mapping and cancer research; and the list goes on and on. However, considering the time period—1950s—and the person they were taken from—a poor, black woman—no one ever really knew who these cells came from, nor did they really care. Fast forward twenty or so years: Medical researchers track down Henrietta’s children to try and test their cells to see if theirs too are immortal. Being poor and uneducated, they don’t know what to think and are very confused and angry that many people (as well as a multi-billion dollar drug industry) have benefited financially from Henrietta’s immortal cells. There is a lot more to the story than what I am able to write here.

There is so much that this book makes you think about: medical ethics (using cells/doing research on people without consent happened a lot--note the Tuskegee studies, and the question of ownership of bodies), the role of women (along with issues of abuse, equality in the workplace, the role of a mother), education, health insurance (Henrietta’s family is still unable to afford health insurance today) and how all those issues are affected by race and social class (i.e. because Henrietta was a black female she didn’t go to school; lower class people live without health care because they can’t afford it, etc.). In writing about all these subjects, Skloot herself becomes part of this family's story which adds even more heart to it. She writes about it all with a knowledge of her subject and a compassion for the people she profiles, interviews, and—sometimes—lives with, all while giving well-deserved, belated recognition to the woman behind HeLa.

Read and learn more about Henrietta, the book, and the author:
New York Times (great review)
CBS Sunday Morning (watch a video!)

Disclaimer: From time to time I will be reviewing or writing about books. Since I work in publishing, at times I may have worked on some of these books in a commercial capacity. I will not only write about books that I have worked on, and I will always provide my unvarnished opinion to our readers, but I wanted to make you aware of the dual hats I wear.

1 comment:

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