Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Stunning! I will defer to ny Cyber Friend's review, since I agree with her wonderful review. This is one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I read a review of this book last weekend,
downloaded it from Audible, have spent the last few days glued to my iPod until its battery ran down (twice), and finished it late last night.

This is, without a doubt, one of the most compelling books I have ever
read. It's not just that it's well-written, but that the subject matter
is so unbelievable and staggering and has such implications from our
medical past, and for the future of medicine.

Henrietta Lacks was a black woman living in rural Virginia in the 1940s and 50s. A wife and mother of five, she died at the age of 31 at Johns Hopkins medical center, in the black ward, of cervical cancer. A few months before she died, her doctor retrieved a tissue sample from her cervix and gave it to one of his assistants --something they did routinely at this teaching and research
center-- to place the cells into a culture and see if they could grow and replicate. Such cells usually died in a matter of hours, but if they could be kept alive, were increasingly useful in the new field of virology.

Henrietta’s cells lived.

As was the practice then, they named this new cell line HeLa, using first letters from both of her names. HeLa cells were so robust, and replicated so fast, that their use has revolutionized medicine. From the moment the doctors at Johns Hopkins started using them, and giving them out to other researchers to use, they began to spread exponentially, and the infant arm of research known as virology—the
use of human cells to study medical conditions, treatments, cures, and now genetics-- grew with them. HeLa cells are now so prevalent and common in medicine that nearly every researcher in the world has touched them, and they’ve gone up in space. They have been bought and sold, replicated and shipped worldwide. They have unfortunately also contaminated other cell lines, causing uncounted millions of dollars in damage to vital research.

And for over 40 years, her family never knew. Science writer Rebecca Skloot heard snippets of information which got her interested in the HeLa cells, realized the significance of their story, and spent more than 10 years researching and composing this book, interviewing Nobel laureates, pharmaceutical techs and CEOs, lawyers and medical ethicists, and most importantly, the family of Henrietta Lacks. She’s done a brilliant job weaving Henrietta’s story, those of her children, and the progress of science and the HeLa cells, into a moving, iveting, personal narrative. Her access to and eventual closeness with Henrietta’s children was a dangerous course for a journalist needing objectivity to tell this story, but she handled it well. I may even forgive her for making me cry.

Skloot is particularly good about the clarity of her scientific explanations for the layman, and the timeline of important scientific events and discoveries made by the use of HeLa cells. And in a strong Afterword, her even-handed examination of the legal and moral ramifications of human tissue handling, and the desperate need of science to have access to human tissue to serve the needs of
us all, is thought-provoking in the extreme. I can’t get it out of my mind, in fact, and will probably be thinking about it and discussing it for the rest of my life.
It’s that important.

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