The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

A short while ago, I had cause to mention this book in conversation – I had come across it a year or so before, but hadn’t ever read it. Anyway, the conversation prompted me to look up the book, and download it to my kindle – I’ve just finished it, and can recommend it.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in the 1950’s, and consequently died. During her treatment, cell samples were taken, which proved to be the first human cells to be successfully cultured and survived – as such, they were of immense value.

Very shortly HeLa took on a life of its own, being used to to research many diseases, amongst them polio and AIDS – during this time, the woman whose cells they were was pretty much forgotten. While the cells were originally distributed to the world for free, in subsequent years there were certainly many pharmaceutical companies who made fortunes from HeLa, and still do to this day; while Henrietta’s children and grandchildren cannot even afford healthcare.

Despite some initial misgivings on the subject matter, I found the book an easy and very enjoyable read, which switches in time throughout, telling three stories at the same time: Henrietta’s childhood and adult life; her cells and the scientific research that resulted; and the author Skloots’s research and her relationship with Henrietta’s family, in particular Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter.

The book has been criticised by some, saying that Skloot accuses the pharmaceutical companies of aking money out of Henrietta’s cells, while doing the same with her book. These criticisms seem to come mostly from people who haven’t actually read the book. The book was written with the permission and involvement of the Lacks family, and I felt is was actually quite even-handed; identifying the ethical issues, while not denying the good that has been done by research with HeLa cells. It raises questions about informed consent, and who owns the rights to your genes, and, surprisingly, your body tissue.

A thought-proving read.

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