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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

It's been awhile since I have done a book review. During the summer I seem to read a lot more magazines. This book is non fiction so it took a lot longer to get through than an easy "beach read". My friend Dabrielle recommended it for our two person, long distance book group. The book has a lot of facts, a lot of science, most of which I'm not sure I completely understood, the the human interest part was the most fascinating part to me.

So what is the book about?
Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2010: From a single, abbreviated life grew a seemingly immortal line of cells that made some of the most crucial innovations in modern science possible. And from that same life, and those cells, Rebecca Skloot has fashioned in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks a fascinating and moving story of medicine and family, of how life is sustained in laboratories and in memory. Henrietta Lacks was a mother of five in Baltimore, a poor African American migrant from the tobacco farms of Virginia, who died from a cruelly aggressive cancer at the age of 30 in 1951. A sample of her cancerous tissue, taken without her knowledge or consent, as was the custom then, turned out to provide one of the holy grails of mid-century biology: human cells that could survive--even thrive--in the lab. Known as HeLa cells, their stunning potency gave scientists a building block for countless breakthroughs, beginning with the cure for polio. Meanwhile, Henrietta's family continued to live in poverty and frequently poor health, and their discovery decades later of her unknowing contribution--and her cells' strange survival--left them full of pride, anger, and suspicion. For a decade, Skloot doggedly but compassionately gathered the threads of these stories, slowly gaining the trust of the family while helping them learn the truth about Henrietta, and with their aid she tells a rich and haunting story that asks the questions, Who owns our bodies? And who carries our memories? --Tom Nissley

The book really made me think...several months ago I actually participated in a research study with the University of Utah Hospital. One of the forms I signed said that in addition to the actual project I was participating in, the researchers could basically use the samples to conduct any other research they wanted. At the time I thought, sure, use what you want, if I could help someone else, why not. In theory I still feel this way, but reading this book made it seem so much more invasive. The financial gain was a big issue in the book, Henrietta's family was very upset that her cells made so many people rich while they lived very difficult lives. I wouldn't necessarily want to make money off a medical help that was discovered using my donations, but I might feel differently if I didn't have the financial opportunities that I have. Also, it doesn't seem right for a drug company, or other private venture to profit from the donation. So I guess I'm conflicted, I'm not sure where the money belongs. Henrieta's family also really suffered because they didn't know anything about her cells, how they were being used, and how important they were. It's pretty unlikely to have that dramatic of an effect on science, but again, if I did, I'm not sure if I would want my family and friends to know, or if I would prefer to just remain anonymous. See the book has made me think, but I still haven't really figured out how I feel.

At it's core, the book is about a family that lost their wife and mother, something that always hurts. Henrietta's daughter Deborah, while being interviewed for a BBC documentary said she would often be sad and cry and ask "Why, Lord, did you take my mother when I needed her so much. I really appreciated how the author combined the science with the personal, not an easy task but necessary, otherwise, it would have felt like a college textbook. Through the details of her family, Henrietta became real, and relevant, which I think was exactly the author's intention.


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