“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

HenriettaLacks

asteriaiconI cannot believe we have had this blog going for this long and I have not yet done a review about this book. This is another one of my go to Swiss Army recommendations for just about anyone looking for a good book!

The book follows the life of Henrietta Lacks, or more importantly her family. Henrietta was a working class black woman, trying to make ends meet as a tobacco farmer. She was suffering from cervical cancer, and was receiving treatment. During the course of her treatment, cervical cells were taken from her without her knowledge or consent, and smeared in a Petri dish. Science had not yet been able to get cells to grow before, not until Henrietta came along, and changed the entire path for scientific research.

Lacks’ cells were the first scientists were able to reproduce, and reproduce they did. HeLa cells, as they became known as, are a huge multi-billion dollar industry today. They have helped the world over to create vaccines for such things as Polio, as well as other cures and medicines and treatments which have helped millions of people. Thanks to HeLa cells, we can understand gene mapping, which it’s a subject that hits home for me, and they can help millions of couples conceive through in vitro fertilization, a technique we could never have accomplished had it not been for HeLa cells.

Skloot, a journalist, has chosen to tell the story more through talking with the Lacks’ family. Her family is still working poor, and cannot even afford the health care that Henrietta’s cells helped to create. They did not receive one cent of the money generated from the production and sale of HeLa cells.

It really makes someone think. Life back then was so vastly different from what we know today, probably more so for a poor black woman. Her care would have been different than that of a white woman’s with the same illness in those times. Is it fair that her cells were harvested without her knowledge or consent? Certainly today this would not (or should not) happen in a first world country. Is it right that the family did not receive any monetary compensation from the sale of Lack’s cells? How it is right that the family cannot afford healthcare that might not exist yet without HeLa cells?

On the other side of the coin, where would healthcare the world over be without HeLa cells? How many people have benefited from the medicine and technology created by them? How much would we understand about various illnesses and how they evolve? Is the consent of one woman worth literally millions of lives?

It is a very interesting and thought provoking read. I believe this is also being made into a movie, and if I am not mistaken, I do believe Oprah is involved, which will definitely get the word out about who Henrietta Lacks was, and her unknowing contribution to science and modern medicine. At any rate, I dare you to read this and not debate where you stand between ethics and science.

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