Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Twenty One: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

April Book Club Selection

I cannot recommend this book enough. Rebecca Skloot has a way of working in the human interest side while explaining the scientific parts of the story at the same level of ease.

On January 29, 1951 Henrietta Lacks goes to John Hopkins for an appointment at the gynecology clinic and they confirm that she has a lump in her cervix.  A few days later Henrietta signs a consent for surgery and radium treatment.  Before the doctor places the tubes inside her cervix next to her tumor, he took a few cell samples.

These cell samples are sent to George Guy who is trying to grow immortal cells - cells that grow on their own over and over again.Guy's assistant Mary starts to grow Henrietta's cells - labeling them HeLa.  Their growth rate was unusual and the first batch of HeLa cells were created. Guy begins sending other scientists samples of the HeLa cells for their own experiments.

By September Henrietta's body is taken over by the cancer and her body has turned black from the radiation treatments.  On October 4, 1951 - Henrietta passes away.  Her husband Day unknowingly signs papers to allow a partial autopsy to be done.

As the years go by, more and more scientists are requesting HeLa cells and George Guy starts to experiment on sending cell cultures across the country and how to preserve them.  Some scientists contact Henrietta's family asking for samples from her children and husband.  But none of the scientists take time to explain why they are asking or what they are testing.  A few journalists contact the family as well asking questions about their mother/wife.

When Rebecca starts to reach out to Henrietta's family they are so turned off by all the other inquiries that she actually has to explore and do a lot of research herself.  She patiently explains and re-explains the research she finds and her intentions with writing about Henrietta and Deborah - her youngest daughter.

Two main themes surfaced while I was reading this book - 1) How did the HeLa cells impact science? and 2) How did the HeLa cells impact her family. The HeLa cells impacted science greatly by helping to standardize the cell culture process and mass production of cells on top furthering research on cures for many diseases. The HeLa cells impacted the Lacks family by having their privacy invaded by strangers asking questions and doing tests while they received no compensation for the cells being "sold" or having health insurance themselves.

At our book club we watched part of the BBC documentary which explored both of the themes I mentioned above.  It was nice to have faces put to the names we had been reading about.

I learned today that HBO is converting the book into a film and Rebecca and the Lacks family are consulting on the direction.  Awesome!

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