Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - by Rebecca Skloot

I've been intrigued by this title for several years. So, recently when two different friends of mine suggested that it be would be a good choice for Bridgewater's One Book One Community (OBOC) reading program several of us on the OBOC steering committee decided to read it. It does look like an excellent choice for a community-wide read with a lot of issues for discussion including race, class, medical ethics, legal ethics, and science vs. religion.

Author Rebecca Skloot, sets out to find out about the real person behind the HeLa cell line. In 1951 cancer cells were taken from Henrietta Lacks who was being treated at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland (one of the few places that offered treatment to African American patients at the time). Lacks' cells turned out to have an incredible rate of reproduction and were the first cells that were able to be kept alive in a culture. Still reproducing today they have been used in countless medical, and other scientific experiments. Lacks' family did not find out about the cells until 25 years later. And virtually none of the people doing research with Lacks' cells knew anything about the woman they came from (most thought her name was Helen Lane). In Skloot's quest to find out about the mother of five who died of cervical cancer at age 31 she consulted doctors and researchers; traveled to Lacks' family home in Clover, Virginia; and interviewed family members, much of the time accompanied Lacks' daughter Deborah, who knew almost as little about her mother as Skloot did.

Henrietta Lacks moved from her hometown of Clover to Turner Station, a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland for her husband to take a job at Bethlehem Steel. So, it is at the Turner Station Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library that Skloot meets the librarian who shows her a VHS tape of the BBC program The Way of All Flesh.

At the time of Lacks' death there were no laws or ethical codes that required doctors to ask permission from patients to take living tissue. There were laws requiring permission of the family before removal of tissue from dead bodies. Controversy remains as to when the cells were removed, and whether consent was granted.

This work is completely readable and accessible, even for those of us who have not had a science class since tenth grade biology.

More information
Recent article from the New York Times tells of the Lacks family finally being given a place at the table.
Remembering Henrietta Lacks
The Supreme Court ruled in June that naturally occurring genes could not be patented, although synthetic ones can be.

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