This blog is dedicated to the amazing staff at the New Canaan Public Library in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by R.Skloot, 2010, * * * * *

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the tale of a 31-year old black mother of five in Baltimore, who died of cervical cancer in 1951.  Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue sample from her cervix to research and they spawned the first viable, indeed immortal, cell lines ever grown in a laboratory. These cell lines have since spawned a multibillion dollar industry - yet her descendents have received no financial compensation and cannot even afford health care. Until Rebecca Skloot, a science reporter,  began her 10-year quest to learn about the woman whose cell line had saved millions of lives, the woman behind the HeLa cells was virtually unknown.  HeLa cells (named for the first two initials of Henrietta Lacks's first and last names)  have been responsible for unlocking the secrets of cancer and various viruses and have been essential to the development of in vitro fertilization, the polio vaccine, cloning and gene mapping.   The interactions between Skloot, a white woman, and the initially wary Lacks family contribute to this fascinating story and what emerges is a sweeping account of race, gender, ethics, class, economics, science and medical treatment and how they intersect in an unequal health care system.  In her summary Ms. Skloot discusses Myriad Genetics, a company that holds patents on several genes, including two genetic markers for breast cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2.  In a wide reaching ruling by a federal judge delivered on March 29, 2010, those patents were struck down in an argument stating that genes are products of nature and thus occur naturally. This book could not be more relevant.

1 comment:

  1. This book was amazing. In her talk at the Westport Library the author described the 10-year struggle to write the book. She also described Henrietta and the story of the HeLa cells. I bought 2 copies which she signed. I gave a copy to my gyn-oncologist daughter. After finishing my own, I have kept it on the coffee table so others will see it. I give it 5 stars on Rainy's rating system.