Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca  Skloot

The author fills this book with emotion, medical ethics, family issues, poverty, and  medical science.  At times I felt like I was in Twilight Zone, or one of the sci-fi adventures.

The book is the true story and account of Henrietta Lacks. She was a poor, black tabacco farmer. A woman descended by a American black slave.
She was married to a close cousin. Henrietta, had five children.  Four months after delivery of her fifth child she arrived at John Hopkins Hospital doubling over with pain. She had a biopsy, and unknowing to her, the doctor took out tissue from her cervix without her permission.  This was going on all the time during the 50's, there wasn't any regulation.

 Her doctor went down the hall and gave the tissue to Dr. Guy. He started growing the cells and discovered it was becoming immortal and very strong No one knows exactly why the cells re-produced. Dr. Guy would pass on the cells to other collegues( no cost to them). This is the start of the HeLa line.  Henrietta became very sick.She was treated with radium, the radium eventually burned her. Her skin became dark as coal.  When she died she was covered with tumors. The tumors looked like pearls all over her body. The worst was her bladder. I assume because it was the closest to the cervix.

I am not quoting the book but there is a reference, the wife of the scientist noticed her red toe nails was chipping away. It was the first reference that she was human.

The above statement hits you with emotion. You realize when you are working in the lab where is the human element. There is not one. I am a nursing student. I just finished taking Anatomy and Physiology. This is fresh in my mind when we are disecting. It is easy to not realize the human element. Where did this cat, or dog come from. Or if you are a medical student and you have to dissect human cadavers. Where did they come from.

Most cells have a time when they shut off called telemeres.  But, HeLa cells don't stop they continue indefinately.

 He La cells were used for polio vaccines, going up in space, invitro fertilization, genetic mapping, etc.  Amazing isn't this in a short time how cells developed and changed and advanced in a short time period of 20 years, I did not realize how much medical science had advanced in part of He La cellls. 

During this time there was so much controversy about the HeLa cell contamination. No wonder there were lots of movies based off science fiction The Blob, Godzilla and others( part human, part mad science).

The Lacks family were dirt poor, uneducated with many medical and emotional problems. They had no idea that Henrietta's cells were cultured and re-cultured and contaminating other cells all over the world.  Henrietta's husband recieved a call from a scientist in the 1970's. They wanted to take blood and samples from the family. The scientists wanted to compare the samples to the HeLa cells to determine which cells in the lab were contaminated from the one's that weren't. 

The way that Henrietta's husband heard it was that Henrietta was still alive in a cell.  With someone that thought his wife was dead I am sure this was a shock.  But, this is not how the scientist said it, but how Henrietta's husband heard it.

For years the family was dealing with this uncertainty.  The family was taken advantage of because of the racial injustice, and the poor education, etc.  Until Rebecca Skloot the author, started calling the family and investigating and becoming persistant and knocking on their door.

On another website someone brought up, that the author seemed to be too pushy and barracuda. That perhaps she too was taking advantage of the family.  That is a good point, at times I wondered about that in back of my head.  Who, is to say.

 It took Debra, the youngest daughter a year to trust her. But there were many times that she did not trust the medical science establishment and told Rebecca to leave. But some reason she would always ask her, lets get to it.

The book is full of question for medical ethics, and profit, do you ask the patient for consent or not. Do you tell the patient what you may do with the tissue sample. Is it right that the Lacks don't have medical insurance. Isn't it ironic that their mother helped medical science in millions of ways and they are in poor health.
 This raises plenty of questions.

Henrietta's family at the end when it is said and done. Wanted her mother to get the recognition she deserved.  They were happy their mother's cells did advance the medical world. They were not looking for profit.

There is a good side to this and a bad side. Is it right for scientist to take tissues from your body without your knowledge? Is it right that someone is making a profit off the tissue? You can look at this at both sides.
Don't forget it takes large amounts of funding for medical research. 

My big thought is, that there is alot of research being done but there is secrecy around it. It is about recognition and profit. A scientist discovers a great medical finding and doesn't share it until he finishes he's research. What happens?  He keeps it secret till he finishes by that time many people could have benefitted many years ago, instead of keeping it hidden until he's research is done.

I remember a movie, called The Band Played On, it was about the discovery of the HIV virus. The story about the discovery of the AIDS virus, the politics, rivalry between two scientists discoveries. Now that bothers me.



I enjoyed reading this book. Because it has alot to make you think about and discuss with your friends and your fellow book club members. It is not just the science side. It gives you more of the human side of , who was Henrietta Lacks. If any of you are science majors or in the medical field taking some science classes. The next time you are in lab, think of the subject you are dissecting. There is always the human side.  Who's tissue is this???

The book has alot for you to think about and discuss.

Below is a clip of the HeLa cells in action.  Look how far we have come.
It feels like a "blast from the past". It is just how amazing how far science and genetics have come.
I am sure there is more to explore.


HeLa Cells from Radiolab on Vimeo.

3 comments:

bermudaonion said...

I actually did read this for my book club and we had a great discussion about it. It gives you a lot to think about.

Lisa said...

Everyone seems to like this but you bring up some very good points.

Carin said...

Oooh, you should totally read the book And The Band Played On. It's long, but really, really good (and frustrating."

Immortal is on my TBR list, and every review I've read has just intrigued me further.

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