The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

This is a fascinating story told well. Henrietta Lacks, descended from a slave family died of cervical cancer in 1951. Just prior to her death, and unknown to her, a doctor treating her took a sample of the cancer cells in order to culture them.

Remarkably, he discovered that these cells, named Hela, not only survived long after their donor, but were extraordinarily virulent, and were virtually indestructible. Indeed the offspring of these original cells are still around today and remain the most valuable cell line on the planet having been successfully used in all sorts of experiments, including finding a cure for polio. Indeed many millions of dollars worth of cell research must be abandoned every year because the original test cells have been infected or infiltrated by Hela cells. (google ‘hela’ and see what comes up)

It is estimated that 51 million tonnes of Hela cells have been manufactured and traded since 1951. Yes tonnes!

The science of cell research is related engagingly by Skloot, who took on this book as something as a personal crusade. Not only was she interested in the science dimension of the story, but was also curious about the Lacks family, and particularly the children of Henrietta.

So what we have is an interweaving of an often tragic personal family story set against the incredible science of cell research which has lead to all sorts of marvellous discoveries. It is also the story of a poor family exploited by a multi-billion dollar industry. So ignorant of the science were her offspring they they worried that when their mother’s cells were infected with the AIDS virus, they worried that their mother had been infected. And no scientist ever took the time to explain. So burnt were they by their exploitation that Skloot displays incredible patience and fortitude in gaining their trust.

Issues of family, identity, race, science and ethics are to the fore in this very readable book. It is utterly appalling in fact to learn how the medical fraternity in the US treated the weak and vulnerable, even down to virtually kidnapping homeless people, mainly homeless black people, to perform cancer experiments on them, for instance,  in return for a bed for a few nights and some hot food. And I’m talking about the 50s and 60s here.

I understand that there are a few more protections in law in the UK, but still in the US apparently any material that is taken from your body during  a medical procedure is no longer your ‘property’. Several stories in the book relate how medical practitioners made millions from cells of donors without telling at all to that donor. In one famous case, even recalling the donor annually to harvest more. Incredibly after the donor discovered what was going on and sued the hospital – he lost!

Recent scandals over foetal material in hospitals down south demonstrate that the Henrietta Lacks story is still relevant.

Well worth a read.

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