The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Cancer treatment. HIV treatment. Genetics. Space travel. STDs. Corneal transplantation. Diabetes treatment.
All of the above have been developed with the use of Hela cells - human cells that have been growing in labs since 1951. Hela cells and their studies have revolutionized the whole of medical research. The more the medical science researchers learn, the more they can explore and the more ethical questions are being raised.
Medical and human cell research wasn't a question of ethics in the early 1950's. It was normal practice to use humans for research without their full knowledge. Human tissue could be removed and used without anyone questioning its source or use.
Hela cells were the first successfully harvest and reproduced human cells. They are still growing and being used in research around the world. Hela cells were named using the initial two letters from the research subject - a black woman named Henrietta Lacks who died in 1951 from cervical cancer. Rebecca Skloot became interested this unknown person when she first heard of her while in a science class. Many years later Skloot finally decided to follow up on that initial research and discover more about Henrietta and the Hela cells.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks chronicles the Hela cells, Henrietta's short life, and her family. This is nonfiction and the truth isn't always pretty. The Lacks family didn't know anything about Henrietta's contribution to the world of scientific research. They were a poor black family barely surviving in Baltimore. Henrietta's healthy children were raised by a jealous, abusive relative. Her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren often didn't have medical insurance or jobs. Her youngest daughter Deborah wondered about her mother all her life. The Lacks family were exploited after Henrietta's name was released in the 1970's. They became more withdrawn and protective of their mother's memory and history.
Meanwhile the Hela cancer cells flourished and were used around the world. The original researcher who harvested and grew the original cells gave them away and made little profit in his life from his discoveries. The cells went into space and to the bottom of the ocean. They were the object of a Soviet scare that the US was trying to skew their medical research. Later they contaminated other cells, causing millions of dollars of loss. But they have done many times over more good than bad.
Skloots examines the good and bad in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. She ends the book with a discussion of medical research ethics, neither condoning or criticizing current practice. This insightful book is easy to read. It shows how opinions and ethics change over the years. It follows a family through hardship and more hardship with the occasional highlight. And The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reminds the remind of all the changes in our science and health that have occured in the past 60 years and how it was achieved.
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