Thursday, August 23, 2012

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This book is a mystery, a science tale, a personal story, and an excellent review of medical ethics. The book description on Amazon reads:

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. 

This book is a true tale which reads like a novel: you don't want to put it down, but there is so much to think about ethically that you have to take your time. I did anyway. I would read a bit, let the book rest, go back to it and read a bit more.

The author, Rebecca Skloot, tells us the facts about HeLa cells and about the (billion dollar) medical industry which grew from these immortal cells. She gives an insider's view of the family of Henrietta Lacks, especially Henrietta's daughter. In particular, how she was kept in the dark about all the science happening to her mother's cells (and all the money being made).

Ms. Skloot explores the ethics of growing human cells for profit and explains how most of do not have any rights over our own cells once they leave our body (ever get a wart removed? it's probably in a medical freezer somewhere just waiting to be experimented on), all without seeming to pass judgement on any one person or any institution. This is great writing. We all get to make up our minds about how we feel.


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