Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (CBR book #11)

This book has been on the New York Times Bestseller' list and has an intriguing title...but when I heard what it was actually about...I couldn't understand why it was so popular (what does the New York Times know anyway?). Sure, my interest in biology might surpass the normal person's, but how interesting can a book about a line of cells actually BE? I'll be honest, the only reason I ended up reading this book is because someone literally laid it on my desk to read.

So here's the rundown...Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia on August 1, 1920. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in February of 1951 and died less than 8 months later. Although she died young, Henrietta left behind an incredible legacy that no one could ever have imagined. A legacy whose contribution was priceless to society but devastating to the family she left behind.

I suppose to a biologist or anyone familiar with cell cultures, HeLa cells are perhaps the rock stars of their world. HeLa cells are cancer cells that have continued to grow and divide in culture, where other cells eventually die. HeLa's tencity has allowed them to be used for medical research for the past 60 years. HeLa cells have been used to test the effects of steroids, chemotherapy drugs, hormones, and vitamins; they have been been used to study polio, tuberculosis, salmonella, and hermorrhagic fever; they have been exposed to viruses; they have received harmful doses of radiation to study the effect of a nuclear bomb on cells; they have been sent into space to determine the effects of zero gravity on cells; and the list goes on and on. It is not an overstatement to say that HeLa cells have radically advanced the fields of medicine and cellular biology, yet the woman from whom these cells were taken would never know her contribution to modern medicine. That woman was Henrietta Lacks. And it would be decades before her family would know or understand how her cells were taken and how they have helped millions of people.

In her carefully researched book, which took about ten years to write, Rebecca Skloot has written a beautiful account of Henrietta Lacks and her family. She intersperses chapters about Henrietta's personal life with more technical (but accessible) chapters about how Henrietta's cells were developed in vitro and used in medicine. Her narrative covers a wide range of subjects including the racial climate of the 1950's and how differently African-Americans were treated in hopsitals. Even as she reasearched the book and first contacted the Lacks' family, Skloot writes about the family's distrust of caucasians and how she carefully had to build their trust and eventually developed a deep friendship with Deborah, Henrietta's daughter. Skloot does a great job of sharing the amazing things HeLa cells have done for society while simultaneously revealing the pain and confusion the HeLa cells have brought the Lacks' family who can't even afford to see a doctor themselves.

So this is a definite recommend for me, but the reading can get a bit academic. If you're looking for a brainless novel, this isn't the book for you. But if you want to learn something about science as well as humanity, I'd give this one a go!

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