Thursday, May 31, 2012

the immortal life of henrietta lacks by rebecca skloot

henrietta lacks was an african american woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. she received treatment at johns hopkins hospital where, before her death, some of her cells were harvested for biopsy and, more importantly, scientific research. 

her cells are significant because they were the first cells to successfully survive and grow in culture. the cell line, known as the HeLa cell line, reproduced at an astounding rate which opened the door for medical and biological research which had previously been stunted due to the quick death rates of cells once they were taken out of a body. 

the book tells the story of henrietta and and the family she left behind. she had not given permission for her cells to be used in scientific research and her family was not aware that they were being reproduced. this was standard practice for the time (and for a lot longer than you would venture to guess).

the book is full of medical history and questions/observations about medical research ethics and patients rights.

i learned a lot reading this book. the writer makes the science accessible and easy to understand. i learned things about the medical research field and surprised, and to be quite honest, enrage me. once tissue leaves your body (during an operation/biopsy/birth/etc.) it is no longer considered yours and the facility can use it or sell it for medical can read from this that they can make money from your tissue.  you do not have the right to demand your tissue be destroyed or block the facility from selling it.

the major source of anger on the part of the lacks family is that HeLa cells represent a multi-billion dollar industry, and they live in poverty, some of them living on the street. this brought to my mind the several moles i've had removed and the spleen that was taken out to cure my itp. no doubt some of my tissue has been used/sold. i don't necessarily have a problem with my tissue being used in research if it helps discover cures and save peoples' lives. but if i discovered that someone was making millions of dollars regrowing and selling my cells, you bet i would feel entitled to some of those proceeds. but i wouldn't be.  

i enjoyed this book so much more than i expected. i'm anxious to hand it off to my friends and family. 

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