Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was a young African-American mother of five who felt a "knot" on her womb. When she went to Johns Hopkins--one of the few hospitals in Baltimore that served sick black people--she had only months to live. But, cells from the tumor on her cervix were destined for a longer life--taken without her knowledge, the cells proved to be the first ever to live and reproduce in lab cultures. In fact, the so-called HeLa cells reproduced at a tremendous rate and the scientist who initially began working with them, George Gey, made them readily available to virtually anyone who asked. Over time, the cells were used in an incredible number and range of research studies.

Rebecca Skloot weaves together Henrietta's story with an examination of the many ways in which the HeLa cells were used and the controversies that arose around them. She also introduces readers to Henrietta's children, who knew nothing about the use of their mother's cells until 20 years after her death; the effort it took to gain their trust and assistance; and the challenges of researching the personal aspects of the story. Henrietta's daughter Deborah is a particularly engaging Through these diverse narratives, she explores issues of poverty, race and medicine, and the ethics of conducting scientific/medical research using tissue taken from human beings.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an engaging read that also poses important sociocultural and ethical questions that Skloots challenges the reader to consider. Her book should be required reading for students considering a career in medical research, as well as for anyone who has benefitted from research using the HeLa cells (i.e., nearly everyone--when the book was published in 2009, 60,000 scientific articles had been published based on research using HeLa, and 300 additional articles were being published each month).

Favorite passages:
Thank you, Ma, we will see you again someday. We read what we can and try to understand. My mind often wonder how things might would be if God had you stay here with me...I keep with me all I know about you deep in my soul, because I am part of you, and you are me. We love you Mama. (Spoken by Henrietta's daughter Deborah)

"This child will someday know that her great-grandmother Henrietta helped the world!" Fullum [Deborah's husband] yelled. Then he pointed around the room at Devon and JaBrea's other cousins, saying, "So will that child . . . and that child . . . and that child. This is their story now. They need to take hold of it and let it teach them they can change the world too."
He raised his arms above his head and yelled hallelujah. Baby JaBrea waved her hands and let out a loud happy screech, and the congregation yelled amen.

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