Reading a strong and captivating work of non-fiction (like this one: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) is my favorite way to learn. It's one of the reasons I homeschool. I never wanted my kids to think history or science was boring and dry simply because they were forced to learn it from some lame textbook, written by a committee of otherwise unemployable writers who are forced to cover every topic on a laundry list of state standards. End rant.... and my apologies if you happen to be the author of a lame textbook -- but, admit it... I speak the truth. This book is the antithesis of the typical lame textbook; it's a fascinating look at a part of science and medicine I knew very little about. Considering how much the modern world has benefited from the cells of Ms. Lacks, its amazing more people don't know their history.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black woman struck down by cervical cancer at the age of 31. The medical treatment she received at Johns Hopkins Hospital was appalling, though not unusual for that time. What was unusual was that a doctor there happened to be collecting tissue samples in an attempt to grow cells in culture. He'd had marginal success, but the samples always died out rather quickly. Ms. Lacks' cancerous tissue cells were quite different -- they appeared to be immortal. They could reproduce endlessly (doubling every 4 hours), making it possible for scientists to study and conduct tests on them. These cells allowed scientists to develop treatments for diseases such as polio, cancer, AIDS, diabetes and innumerable others. The field of virology began with the discovery of these cells, known as HeLa cells (named from the 1st letters of Ms. Lacks' first and last name). Scientists infected HeLa cells with everything from mumps and measles to herpes and learned how cells react and change when exposed to disease. In 1953 researchers discovered by accident that a certain staining agent could make cell chromosomes visible and genetic medicine was born. Finally, doctors understood the chromosomal basis for Down's Syndrome and were able to develop genetic tests, such as amniocentesis. Eventually, they were able to map the entire human genome thanks to HeLa cells and one can only guess the medical breakthroughs that are yet to be made as a result of that knowledge. Gene therapies, cloning technology, in vitro fertilization, stem cells, all were reliant on HeLa cells.
It goes without saying that countless scientists and medical corporations have enjoyed immeasurable financial profit (easily billions if not trillions of dollars), from work that would have been impossible without the cells of Henrietta Lacks. Many went into the business of simply distributing HeLa cells. It's estimated that although you could fit 100 HeLa cells on the head of pin, over 50 million metric tons of her cells exist in labs all over the world. Yet, her family has never seen any of that profit and were often so poor that they couldn't even afford the medical insurance necessary to utilize some of the medicines developed through their mother's cells. This book delves into not only the history of how HeLa cells have impacted science and medicine, but also into the lives of her children after her death. The author, Rebecca Skloot, humanizes these cells by providing the background information about Henrietta Lacks and how her 5 children were affected by what happened with their mother's cells. It's a mostly sad and very unfortunate tale of a poverty stricken family and how they were manipulated and taken advantage of by those with greater power and education.
I was impressed by the vast amount of scientific and biographical material Skloot covers in this book (the info about HeLa as a contaminant was fascinating), but the ethical issues she discusses are equally gripping. Medical ethics and patient privacy have come a long way since Henrietta Lacks died, but it's astonishing how much power doctors still have over our tissues. There are billions of samples of human tissue stored in laboratories all over the world (and if you have ever had, say, a mole removed, one might be yours). We all benefit from medical research and certainly nobody wants to halt that progress in any way, still there must be a way to improve consent laws and educate people in greater detail about these issues. Medical ethics are often thorny and complicated and a balance between individual rights and the needs of medical progress will likely continue to be endlessly negotiated in both laboratories and the courts.
I really enjoyed Skloot's approach in this book. It was a tremendous amount of information to organize, but she does an admirable job of keeping this story both informative and interesting. The details could easily have been rendered dry and boring if they'd been placed in the hands of the textbook hacks mentioned above. However, Skloot's skillful rendering had me up quite late several nights, unable to put it down even though I knew an early morning was waiting for me. I definitely recommend it and will look for her next project.