Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Highly recommend everyone to read this book. I listened to it on audiobook (12+ hours) and it drew me in each time.

Henrietta Lacks was a black woman born in Virginia who unknowingly gave her cancer cells to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Back in the '50s it wasn't necessary, or even thought of, to ask patients for tissue samples for research. It was just done. When Lacks went to Johns Hopkins for cervical cancer treatments, the doctors took samples of the tumors and sent them to George Gey to work with. Gey had been trying to find ways to get human cells to live in a lab, with very little success. Lacks' cells turned the tide (and became known as HeLa cells) and are still living today.

This book has 2 sides: the good that the HeLa cells have done (the polio vaccine to name one very important discovery) and the Lacks family, who didn't know that their mother/wife had cells taken from her without anyone's permission. The Lacks family never received any money or any information about the HeLa cells and Skloot was determined to get the story out.

The whole research issue is an interesting one. The book brought up the case of John Moore, who found that his tissue was being used in research that would net the doctor a lot of money. He sued and was told he had no rights to his tissues and therefore could get nothing from it. This is based on the fact that millions of people, every day, leave behind tissue and cells at hospitals and doctor's offices and that tissue is what helps science proceed. As someone who has left behind a colon, thyroid and who knows what else after leaving a hospital, this amazes me. I always assumed tissue was incinerated but that happens rarely. Mostly it's stored and/or used in scientific research.

This is truly an amazing book and it's spurred me into looking at tissue research a little more in depth.
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