Thursday, December 30, 2010

A kind of immortality

It is impossible to think about one of the most important tools in medicine - the culture and study of human cells - without knowing about Henrietta Lacks, a poor, illiterate black woman who died of cervical cancer a week after her 31st birthday nearly 60 years ago.

I've known about Rebecca Skloot's book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," for many months, but it was only this week that I got around to buying a copy. I'm an idiot for waiting so long. It's one of the very best books of 2010, with stunningly moving writing that offers something for everyone - the science of cell cultures, the stumbling growth of medical ethics, race relations over the past 60 years, and the personal tale the lives of Henrietta's children and grandchildren. Let's add the author's long battle to win their trust and respect.

Shortly before Henrietta died doctors at Johns Hopkins operated to insert packets of radiation. In the process, without her knowledge or consent, they took samples of a tumor, hoping to get cells they could keep alive.

Her cancer cells not only thrived, but multiplied like lightning. If you've ever had a polio vaccine, thank Henrietta's cells - code-named HeLa - for showing the way. In fact, they've revolutionized the field. They've participated in atomic bomb tests to examine the effect of radiation on cells. They've been to the moon to study low gravity's effect. They've help lead to big advances in gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and cloning.

They've also become a multi-million-dollar industry - not one dollar of which ever found its way to Henrietta's family, which knew nothing about HeLa for more than 20 years.

Skloot, an award-winning science writer, knew that this story required far more than science. It's a wonderful book. I'll never think of those vaccine-laden sugar cubes that we kids lined up to swallow in the early 1950s in quite the same way.

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