Sunday, November 27, 2011

Book Review: "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks was a poor Southern woman and mother of five children who died in 1951 as the result of a remarkably aggressive form of cervical cancer. While undergoing radiation treatment, doctors at Johns Hopkins took samples of her cells without her consent, to better study the cancer. These cells, known as HeLa, became an important scientific and medical tool—they were the first "immortal" human cells grown in culture, and they are still alive today. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. But very little was known about the woman from whom these cells came, and her family was unaware of Henrietta's contributions to science for many, many years.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells Henrietta's story and chronicles the struggles of her family, most of whom never had the opportunity to even finish high school, to understand what cells were taken from her and what scientists were doing with them. Rebecca Skloot also gives a great deal of background into scientific research, particularly where cell and tissue study is concerned, and the challenges both the scientific and medical ethics communities face relative to "donations" of cells taken from patients. But in the end, this is the story of Henrietta's family and the emotions that the discovery of her role in science uncovers.

While the subject of this book is very scientific, much of it reads like a novel. It is a fantastic story—sometimes shocking, sometimes heartbreaking—but Skloot gives depth not only to Henrietta and her family, but the researchers who both studied and questioned the HeLa cells through the years. When this book was released last year to tremendous acclaim, I didn't think it would interest me much, but a friend recently recommended it, and I'm glad I was motivated to pick it up. Don't be put off by the subject matter; in the end, this will pique your curiosity and tug at your heart. And you'll definitely look with a different eye at the next medical procedure you have!

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