Reading: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Our book group of several years recently disbanded, so I thought I might start talking about my reading here. Greg suggested that I write 10-word book reviews, but I’m not sure how helpful that is. If 10 words is the length of your attention span, I’m guessing that you aren’t going to tackle a 400-page book about cell cultures and research. But then, Greg has read “Good Night, Gorilla” a lot lately.

I enjoyed this book because it’s such a wonderful example of journalism. I never would have picked up a book about medical research, but this is much more a story about one family struggling to get by and to understand modern medicine.

Rebecca Skloot, the author, traces the history of Henrietta Lacks, a woman who developed a very aggressive case of cancer in the early 1950s. After doctors removed cancer cells from one of Henrietta’s tumors, researchers were able to get the cells to divide in a lab. And divide some more. And then more. Soon they had millions, and then billions, of her cells, which they could use for research on medications and diseases. All of this was done without Henrietta or her family knowing.

The use of her cells led to many medical advances and treatments, and companies have made millions, perhaps billions, of dollars off of these treatments. Yet Henrietta’s children haven’t made any money and don’t even have health insurance.

The end of the book gets into the really meaty ethical questions. Researchers are constantly using our cells without our knowledge. If you’ve had a mole removed or had blood drawn, you might have contributed to medical research. Should you be paid for this? Should researchers be required to get your consent? Do your cells still belong to you after they leave your body?

Though this book had a lot of science, it was easy to grasp. And I actually feel grateful to Skloot for educating me about a topic that I had no knowledge of. Thank you, Rebecca Skloot!