Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Cells for Sale

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot

If you are into biology and/or science writing, you must read this. If you are into biography, you must read this. If you are into history, you must read this. You get my point - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is interesting, thought-provoking, and powerful on any number of levels. I first heard about the book in early February - I read a printed review and also heard an interview with the author on National Public Radio. There was something so compelling about the story, I knew it was something I would read soon. This is a story that shows us (not tells us) how important it is for hospital patients to have advocates, and (even more importantly) how critical it is that ordinary individuals raise questions about practices, policies, and people. I do not think that anyone involved in this story had evil intentions, but the presumption of those in power caused an injustice to be done.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who was born and raised in Virginia and moved to the Baltimore area as an adult. A mother of five children, she died of cervical cancer at the age of 30. This occurred in the early 1950s, before the Civil Rights Movement. While coping with a terminal illness, Henrietta Lacks also dealt with the humiliations of a segregated health facility (Johns Hopkins). Not only that, Hopkins was the only hospital within a reasonable distance that would even treat African-Americans. Soon after her diagnosis, Ms. Lacks's doctor removed two dime-sized tissues samples from her body - one from healthy tissue, the other from her tumor. The healthy cells died soon in the laboratory, but (to the surprise of the researchers), the cancer cells multiplied like mad. Called HeLa cells (after the first two letters of each of the "donor's" names), these cells were soon distributed in labs across the world and used in all kinds of experiments. Jonas Salk used HeLa cells in developing a polio vaccine. The cells have since been used to study many other diseases, including Parkinson's disease, AIDS, Alzheimer's, and multiple sclerosis. The HeLa cells have contributed to the development of countless drugs and other treatments and have alleviated the suffering of millions of people around the world.

I am thankful for HeLa cells, as we all should be. The sticky part of the story is that Henrietta Lacks's permission was not sought before the physicians removed the samples from her body. Her family is mostly uneducated and poor, yet they never benefited financially from all the products developed using her cells. In fact, most of her family does not even have access to health care and thus cannot even benefit physically from Henrietta's contribution. Again, I do not think the oversight was deliberate, it is more as if no one thought to ask permission to cultivate the cells because she was poor, black, and could not afford treatment. The doctors could not have known that this one cell line would proliferate, after so many other attempts had failed. Apparently, tissue removal without prior permission was standard practice at the time.

In the past decade, Henrietta Lacks has finally started to get some recognition for the way that her cells altered medical science. Morehouse College hosted a symposium in her honor in 1996, where researchers presented papers about all the things currently being done with HeLa cells. From what Rebecca Skloot was able to uncover for her book, Henrietta Lacks was a tiny woman with a huge heart, a flair for dancing, and a contagious love for other people. I like to hope and believe that she would have willingly donated her cells for the common good. I also believe, though, that she should not have had to. What really troubles me is that no one, from the doctors down to the lab techs, raised any questions about the practice. It was as if Henrietta Lacks was just a collection of cells instead of a person who mattered to many people.

The past is the past, and cannot be redone, but we can take stories such as this one and allow them to raise our consciousness about issues of justice and truth. We can raise questions about how things are done now. We can recognize Henrietta Lacks as a fellow human being and child of God. We can mourn the sad fact that her children lost their mother.

Reverent Reader


At 3/17/10, 3:29 PM , Blogger leslie said...

Hey Leslie,
I also heard the interview on NPR. I have the sample downloaded on my Kindle and am anxious to start it. After your review, I will get to it next! Sounds like a really good read!

At 3/20/10, 5:23 PM , Blogger Ruth said...

BTW I think "O" mag had an article on this in the Feb issue.

At 3/25/10, 8:28 AM , Blogger K said...

our local NPR station (WUNC) has a local show called the State of Things, and they just did a show on this book and its the author. So fascinating, and sad, to see how it is still affecting Henrietta's descendants today. Here's the link:


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