Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I've been meaning to read this book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for quite some time. I remember having a discussion about it with my mother three or four years ago. Then, a few years back, my book club read the book. It was a month I couldn't attend (I think it fell in June and I was going to be gone at music camp), so I opted not to read it at that time (probably had a whole stack of other books going, as usual). Then, I bumped into the title again a few weeks ago and decided to seek it out at the library. It was a very interesting read, as expected.

Author Rebecca Skloot shares the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who ended up at Johns Hopkins with cervical cancer back in the early 1950s. Her cancer was very aggressive and when they were studying it, the doctors took a segment of the tumor for study, without asking for permission (something that wasn't necessary back in those days). One of the doctors had been trying for ages to keep cells living, but all of the cells seemed to die off in time. Until, he came across the cells from Henrietta Lacks' cancer. Those cells continued to divide and grow. Eventually, that doctor provided samples of the cells to any doctor who was interested in using the cells for research purposes. The research done on the cells led to many advancements in medical circles (polio vaccines, cancer research, etc.), but the family never knew that the cells had been harvested and used.

When cells are used, they are named after the source by using the first two letters of the first and last names. Thus, these cells were labelled HeLa cells. For years, they were attributed incorrectly to various other names like Helen Lane and Helen Larsen. Once the name issue was cleared up, years later, the family finally discovered the contribution their mother's cells had made to medical research. There were, of course, a wide array of feelings associated with this revelation. They were outraged that parts of her had been taken without permission. They were angry that millions of people were benefiting from the cells use and yet the family couldn't even afford health insurance themselves. They were equally confused about what it meant when the doctors explained that her cells were still living, years and years after her death.

Skloot does an excellent job of telling the story with compassion and unbiased presentation. She portrays the family in their actual state (by using their ways of speech and their full descriptions). Moreover, she addresses the ethical issues involved at the end of the book, after telling the family's story completely, and allows the reader to form his or her own opinions about the issues. This is an outstanding book combining scientific information with a deeply personal story about a poor black family.

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