THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS
Book Club Worthy
Does a tumor removed from your body belong to you? What happens to it once the biopsy is done, once the doctors have given the verdict of cancerous or not? Should it be destroyed or can it be used for further medical study? Should further use be disclosed? Should permission be sought? Does the biomedical field have the right to use and further share knowledge and material from your body?
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating study of the contrast between these very issues and the compelling story of Henrietta Lacks, a woman to whom we are all indebted. Contrary to what you may be thinking right now, the book is not stuffed full of confusing medical jargon, although there is some. Don’t worry about that, you will feel smart rather than confused, especially as you follow the authors pursuit and recounting of the realities faced by the family after the loss of their mother. The human component is well mixed in with the alternate story, which is the fascinating way Henrietta’s cells replicate compared to other cells. The key to the story is that during a cervical surgery in 1951, Henrietta’s cells were removed and sent for further study. They were discovered to replicate endlessly without dying, something that had not been discovered with any other cells before. The cells were subsequently shared, and shared, and shared, forming the basis of biomedical research today. Thus Henrietta’s cells are truly immortal. Many advances in the biomedical field are attributed to these cells. However, while her cells are the basis for scientific improvements they are also the basic component of a multibillion dollar industry worldwide. Do you see how further discussion will be required by your book club here?
The name of Henrietta’s cells are HeLa, a term you will become very familiar with by the end of the first chapter. The name originates from a scientific naming practice at the time that used the first two letters of both the first name and last name of a donor (whether the donor was witting or not). Thus Henrietta Lacks’ cells became HeLa.
(Image of HeLa cell from: http://www.nih.gov)
While the importance of HeLa cells to medical advancement and uses today are well enumerated by the author, the story of the woman and family the cells originated from is also deftly woven in bringing a human face and an ethical dilemma for the reader. In particular, that Henrietta’s family had no idea their mother’s cells were being used for study at all, let alone are THE cells used still today. They also have never received a penny for the use of the cells. Should they? What if I told you that you will discover there are other lines that were definitely crossed that add resonance to that question. For instance you will fume when you read how the children (including males) were misled over cervical cancer being hereditary and the subsequent testing they endured.
You will feel many conflicting emotions and be persuaded to lean one way and then the other as you advance chapter by chapter through the book. I promise that you will want to finish this one and you will be eager for your next book club discussion.