Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

My book group met last night to discuss The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I had been wanting to read this book for awhile and it was a good selection for book group--lots to talk about. It is a non-fiction account of a 30-year-old, poor black woman in 1950s Baltimore. She was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive type of cervical cancer in February 1951 and was treated, unsuccessfully (she died in October 1951), at Johns Hopkins, which at that time was the only hospital that would treat black patients.  Henrietta Lacks was treated with radium inserts, but first the doctors took two samples of her cancerous tissue and passed them off to researchers, without her permission or knowledge. Scientists found that HeLa cells (as they were later named from her first and last names) had an uncanny ability to reproduce, and become "immortal." The story is about how doctors and researchers used her cancer cells for research, eventually sold those cells to biomedical research companies,  and in fact are still being used in medical research today. HeLa cells have contributed to the polio vaccine, chemotherapies,  and treatments for herpes, leukemia, influenza and Parkinson diesease,  IVF,  and gene mapping-- and her cells were part of the research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it. HeLa cells have also gone into space, testing how cells react to zero gravity.

This is a story of cancer, medical ethics, racism, poverty and health care. We all liked the book a lot, and were in awe of how the author blended the stories together of Henrietta's illness, the medical and scientific communities, and the surviving Lacks family.  Rebecca Skloot spent 10 years researching the book, gathering information from the medical community and slowly gaining the trust of the Lacks family and ultimately helping them to understand what had happened with Henrietta's cells. As one of Henrietta Lacks's cousins put it, "Nobody round here never understood how she dead and that thing still livin. That's where the mystery's at." The family was extremely poor and uneducated and were never told what was being done with the HeLa cells, let alone given any explanation that they could understand, thus causing much confusion and fear within the family. When they found out the cells were being used, they thought their mother was still alive in some form. It is the author Skloot who arranges for Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, to come into a lab and actually see the cells and be given the explanation she needed.

Then of course there is the issue of money, and whether the family should have received any money for the use of Henrietta's cells, which helped to launch a multi-billion-dollar industry. This is a family that has never had health insurance.  That issue itself was the subject of much discussion in our group.  The book reads easily and is an important reminder that there are real people behind every biological sample used in medical research. We were all glad we read it.

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