Friday, August 26, 2011

Review Friday: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This book is one of my favorite recent looks at the world of science. (And it's available in our Discoveries collection, found in the Browsing Room opposite the Access Services desk of the library.)

The first question on your mind is probably "Who is Henrietta Lacks?" The initial answer - that she was a poor African-American woman who was treated for cancer at Johns Hopkins in the early 1950s - is probably not too exciting.

But what if I told you that she, in a very pragmatic way, helped with the following?
  • testing the 1952 polio vaccine, which protected millions of children.
  • proving that we have 23 chromosomes, helping with the diagnosis of a wide range of genetic conditions.
  • providing the initial spark for scientists to figure out how to keep a single cell alive and grow a line of cells from it (used for everything from in-vitro fertilization to cloning).
  • offering ideas for creation of anti-cancer drugs now in clinical tests.
What did she do? Her cells were taken to create a cell culture that has become the longest-lasting human cell line used in biological science, long known as the HeLa line.

Here's the thing, though: she didn't give informed consent. (She wasn't even asked, which was common at the time for everyone.) She died in poverty. Her extended family, many of whom are still alive, continued to live in poverty, unable to afford the technological advances that her tissue helped doctors create. They spent many years not knowing what that cell culture meant, or what she'd contributed. And for decades, her very name disappeared from the record.

Henrietta's story is about a lot of other things. What right do we have to our own tissue, even after it's removed from our bodies? What does it mean to be an informed health consumer? What does access to health care really mean? What is the intersection between personal choice, research, and commercial profit? And what should happen if - like Henrietta Lacks - our cells turn out to have some unusual quality?

Rebecca Skloot takes this complicated story and makes it readable, interesting, and compassionate as she begins by figuring out why the HeLa culture was called that and winds up diving deeply into the life of the Lacks family (to help them find answers). It's a fascinating read, with clear language that's friendly to the non-scientist, and it's sure to get you interested in other questions of bioethics, health care access, and science.

If you'd like to learn more, Rebecca's website has lots more information, including an extensive FAQ (and a movie is in the planning stages.)

1 comment: