Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This book, by Rebecca Skloot, tells the extraordinary story of how Henrietta Lacks’s cancer cells became immortal. On one level the book detailed how cancer researchers in the 1950's were able to keep Henrietta’s cancer cells alive in the laboratory and how her immortal cancer cells led to amazing things such as making the Salk polio vaccine available, discovering chemicals that caused cancer, and designing drugs for chemotherapy. Researchers learned how cells grow, how DNA works, and so many fundamental discoveries in biology and medicine from research on Henrietta’s cells that many biologists believe her cells were the single biggest development in biology in the 20th century.  

On another level the book told the personal story of Henrietta Lacks and how destructive her death from cervical cancer was to her family. The book moved between the personal story of Henrietta’s family and the revolutionary discoveries and huge profits in the pharmaceutical industry made from her cancer cells.

The most disturbing part of the story was that the family was never told that their mother’s cells were being grown in thousands of laboratories around the world. Her cells were unique and amazing because they quickly grew in a lab and unlike other cells, if cared for, they never died. Countless researchers have worked with her cells, known in laboratory circles as HeLa cells for the first two initials of her name. Many of the researchers who made discovery after discovery using her cells became curious about Henrietta Lacks.

Over time a huge scientific controversy developed between rich and famous cancer researchers who had identified eight unique types of cancer cells and a young scientist who claimed the eight unique properties were all in fact just HeLa cells. This made previous cancer research not only invalid but a waste of hundreds of millions of dollars. The only way to prove the young scientist’s claim was to get a DNA sample from Henrietta’s now grown children. Although the family was living in incredible poverty, they freely gave blood samples to help the researchers. However, the researchers leaked their names to the press and the subsequent stories written about them caused the family great distress.  They had no idea that their mother’s cells were still alive and being grown in laboratories around the world. The staggering poverty of the family of a woman whose immortal cancer cells had revolutionized 20th century medicine stood in stark contrast to the billions of dollars the pharmaceutical industry generated every year from discoveries using her cells.

At the end of the book, it described the legal cases that determined that when you give a tissue or blood sample to your doctor, you lose all rights to it.  Researchers and companies have taken peoples’ samples during the course of their treatments, patented their DNA, and made billions using it for unique treatments.  I would never have guessed.


In spite of what sounds like very dry subject matter, I found the book compelling and entertaining and I could not put it down. 

1 comment:

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