Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Published in 2009, this book centers on an issue raised by the development of medical science and the progress of medical research. Researchers tried for a long time to find cells that would never stop growing, cells that would not die. A 31 year old African-American woman contracted cervical cancer which was diagnosed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, in February of 1951. She was treated with radium, the latest development in cancer treatment, which seemed to get rid of her tumor. However, she had pains again by June. At first the doctors found nothing, but after some weeks had passed, they discovered more tumors. She was given radiation to no avail and died in October, 1951. Her name was Henrietta Lacks. A researcher at the hospital was given some of her cells from the original tumor. Her doctor did not need permission to do this, and even today consent would not be required by law. All blood and other tissue material taken for diagnostic purposes by the medical profession are not considered the property of the patient that undergoes the tests or procedures or operations.

Although Henrietta died, her cancer cells did not. As the author of the book explains to us, although the cells taken were cancerous, they still behaved like cells in many ways and could be used in research. They were the first cells to regenerate infinitely. Eventually HeLa cells, as they were called, were used to find a vaccine for polio, and have been used all over the world to help treat leukemia, influenza, herpes, Parkinson’s disease and to work on cures for cancer and many other illnesses.

Since Henrietta’s cancer cells have been used so extensively, their existence represents millions of dollars paid for their use in research, as well as the profits reaped from the drugs that they helped to make. Rebecca Skloot’s book presents in detail not only the development of the HeLa cells, but how Henrietta’s surviving family was impacted: first by her death, and then by their slow realization of how powerful this legacy was that she inadvertently left to the world.

The author, Ms. Skloot, is a key player in that realization process, describing how over a 10-year span she slowly got to know Henrietta’s family, trying to convince them that she wanted to tell the world about Henrietta, not just her cells. They are a family in tough circumstances, struggling to get by, not being able to afford any health insurance – an ironic note, considering what their mother’s cells have done for modern medicine.

In the end, this is a book to read for the story of the family, and how for all our advances, so many people live lives untouched by the benefits of those advances. The issue of proprietary rights regarding our bodies is addressed in the book, but to no real conclusion. Science and pharmacology wants a free hand in using these parts of us, and the Lacks family has no desire to restrict research and to impede the fight against disease. What they desire is recognition and acknowledgment that it was the malignancy which she personally suffered and died from that became a milestone for the rest of the human race.

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