Engaging story about the immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks

I loved The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacksby Rebecca Skloot. It concerns culture cells that have been of critical importance to research around the world.

Immortal Cells

Most cells are very difficult to maintain alive in petri dishes for the purpose of performing research. Researchers were spending most of their time maintaining the cultures instead of doing research. A particular line of cells labeled HeLa (years ago the first initials of the donor’s first and last names were applied to the sample) thrive in the lab and grow on and on. Even though they are from a cancer specimen, they have been used to develop a multitude of treatments and procedures and to add a wealth of information to our understanding of  biology. For just under $500 you can order a frozen sample of the HeLa cells for research.

Compelling Human Story

Even more interesting is the human interest story where we learn about Henrietta’s family, who did not know of her contribution to the progress of science until 20 years into the existence of a thriving market, trading her cells around the word. Henrietta’s children were young when she fell ill and they had a hard time when a cruel relative stepped in to help raise them (more like abuse them). Another relative (I had to return the book to the library so I cannot recall all the details) kindly stepped in to rescue them, but still it was difficult growing up poor and poorly educated in Maryland. They had a hard life , challenged with health issues possibly due to the families’ practice of intermarrying with close relatives.

Whose tissues are they anyway?

There is also extensive discussion of the controversies surrounding the ownership and patenting of tissues and cells, and the tests and treatments derived from them. The courts have gone back and forth about the issue, but the current law has your tissues being out of your control when they have been left behind in the doctor’s office or the hospital. The doctor should inform you if he has a financial interest with regards to your tissues.

I enjoyed learning about the biology of cell cultures and why Henrietta’s cell continued to live while other cells die after about 50 divisions.

I strongly recommend this book for the knowledge and understanding it imparts.

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