Monday, February 01, 2016

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

In 1951, a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital took a specimen for culture from a cervical tumor that belonged to Henrietta Lacks, a then 31-year-old African-American woman, without informing her that he was doing so, or asking her consent, as is now required. While Henrietta died pretty quickly after her diagnosis, her cells stayed alive and continued duplicating, hence they were dubbed immortal. Pretty soon, the cells were commercialized, produced, packaged and shipped to where there was demand. Science had found a reliable supply of human cells that it could use to test, and experiment with. Many of such experiments were conducted on Henrietta's cells, the most significant one: the test to prove the polio vaccine is effective. Although contaminated, being cancerous, they became the center of many more scientific advances. Later on, the cells tested positive for two strains of Human Papilloma Virus, which confirmed the results of Professor Harald zur Hausen research connecting HPV to cervical cancer.
The Lacks family found out about Henrietta's cells, in a casual conversation between one of Henrietta's daughter in laws, who is a patient aid at Baltimore hospital, and her neighbor who is a cancer research scientist. With very limited education, it was very hard for the family to grasp the true meaning of their mother's cells being living.
The book tries to bring these two stories together, and I think while there is good effort made, but the result is not very satisfactory.
While I enjoyed reading about HeLa; learning what they are, their significance to science as well as medical ethics. I felt confused when the author switched to talking about the Lacks'. She kept all the details of her finding them, connecting with them, and befriending in the book. Which made these chapters verbose. The family's hardships after Henrietta's death due to HeLa are truly sad! It deserves to be narrated pure and simple, and not to be murked by the author's pursuit of it.

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