Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

 This book came highly recommended by a couple of ladies in my small group. I borrowed a copy from one of them, and spent a couple of weeks reading it. Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who, in the 50s, contracted cervical cancer and, while undergoing ultimately futile radiation treatments at Johns Hopkins, had a biopsy taken of the cancer cells. This sample, for some unknown reason, was the first cell culture ever to thrive and survive in laboratory conditions, and it ended up becoming the HeLa cell line, which was distributed to thousands of researchers around the world over the next six decades, and was ultimately responsible for many of the vaccines and cures which are available to us today.

After Henrietta Lacks' death, her family never were told that her cells were still alive, and never participated in the financial profits from their use. The family seemed to assume that it was due to Henrietta's race, but subsequent events and court cases have proved remarkably color blind in denying patients the right to profit from discoveries made with bits and pieces removed from their bodies, even now that researchers are patenting genetic material, which seems like something a person would "own" if anything was.

Lots of interesting issues raised and discussed in this book about medical ethics, some fascinating history of the exploitation of American blacks in medical research, and a portrait of a horribly dysfunctional family, to boot. Great stuff, though it dragged on a bit past the point of satiation.

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