Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010), Rebecca Skloot

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 4 Pierogies

Review: I went to a fundraiser/lecture several weeks ago where Rebecca Skloot was the featured speaker. All I knew was that she wrote a book that didn't sound particularly interesting to me that Oprah was making into a movie with HBO. After the lecture, I was very interested in Ms. Skloot's book. I even bought it in hard-cover and had her autograph it. Pumy's Mommy got two books signed. Ms. Skloot began writing this book as a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. YAY Pittsburgh!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about the origin of the HeLa cell line. HeLa cells are the workhorse of medical research and were vital in the biggest medical breakthroughs of the past century including the development of the polio vaccine and countless treatments for everything from cancer to AIDS. HeLa cells are special because they are "immortal" meaning they will divide and exist forever. There are billions and billions of HeLa cells in research labs all over the world. They are also incredibly resistant and frequently destroy other cell lines that they come into contact with. Up until the discovery of the HeLa line, no human immortal cell line existed. The discovery of the HeLa cell line is literally priceless to the world.
So where did the HeLa cells originate from? Well no one knew or cared for a long time and that is premise of The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks was a black mother of five living in Baltimore. In 1951 she died of a viciously aggressive form of cervical cancer. A sliver of her cervical cancer tumor was taken for medical research without her knowledge (a common practice at the time). However, the cells found in this tumor were cultured by George Otto Gey (a Pittsburgh native) and turned into the first immortal human cell line. Dr. Gey gave away the cells to researchers all over the world for free for use in research. Eventually demand for HeLa cells was so high private companies created "HeLa factories" and made tons of money selling HeLa cells to labs all over the world.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells two stories. One is the history of HeLa cells and their use in scientific research. This portion of the book was incredibly interesting. The other half of the book is the author's journey in writing the book and her relationship with Henrietta Lacks's children (mainly her daughter Deborah). It took Ms. Skloot 10 years to write the book and most of that time seemed to be spent gaining the trust and help of the Lacks family who were understandably guarded.

The book brings up really interesting points on our "rights" to our own tissues generally. Also, the book touches on race relations and exploitation. After all, Henrietta Lacks's cells have created massive amounts of wealth yet her family lives in poverty and has no health insurance to this day. Ms. Skloot tells the story as a journalist though. She reports both sides. Granted Henrietta Lacks had a piece of her cancer removed for research without her knowledge in a segregated hospital but such action was standard at the time (and still is today - taking discarded tissue for research, not segregation). She received the best treatment at the time, the same a white person would have received, and she didn't have to pay for the treatment. As such, the doctors felt perfectly justified doing research on her discarded tissue since they treated her for free. Apparently doctors still do this today even when you pay for treatment, if you ever had a mole removed it is probably in a lab somewhere.

The book was extremely interesting from a scientific point of view. I could not put it down. The human element was addictive too but for all the wrong reasons. It was like watching a Jerry Springer episode play out in front of a literal train wreck. To call the Lackses dysfunctional would be an understatement. Here is the problem with the book. A lot of the themes about exploitation are neutered because the Lackses are so incredibly unlikeable. My New Years resolution this year was to stop being so judgmental but reading about the Lacks family ruined my resolution.

Essentially the Lacks family has a problem with procreating at inappropriately young ages - with each other. As such, they are extremely inbred. Monogamy appears to be a problem as well. Hanrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer caused by HVP given to her by her husband/cousin. He also gave her syphilis and gonorrhea. All the inbreeding mixed with STDs have resulted in a generational cocktail of birth-defects and mental problems. All her children are at least partially deaf, one was retarded and they all have various mental and physical problems. There is also alot os sexual and physical abuse going on. These are not likable people so when they complain constantly bout how they want money for the HeLa cells it is hard to work up the requisite sympathy. But maybe I am just an unsympathetic jerk.

Anyway, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is extremely informative and addictive. Highly recommended and I will definitely watch whatever Oprah comes up with based on the book.

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