Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I have been extremely lax in my reviewing, lately.
Get it? Lax? Lacks? [Never mind…] But this book is just too good to not recommend to one and all.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.
It seems so cliche of a phrase, but in this case it is so true:
"I could not put the book down!"

It is the true story of Henrietta, an African-American woman who died in 1951 from a vicious case of cervical cancer. Before her death, a surgeon at John Hopkins extracted samples of the cancerous tumor and reproduced them in culture. At that time, researchers everywhere were trying similar experiments with patients, but cells would reproduce for a while, and then die.
To the surprise of everyone involved, Henrietta's cells were different. Not only did they not die, they are STILL not dying. HeLa cells, as they came to be known, continue even now to reproduce at alarming rates and inconceivable numbers, aiding in ongoing cancer research worldwide.
The author tells us: "One scientist has estimated that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons…" [incidentally, this is heavier than several Empire State buildings!]
Laying these cells end to end, they would "wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet."
Almost all of us, healthy or not, have in one way or another benefited from the usage of Henrietta's amazing cells.
Yet, neither Henrietta herself, nor any of her family, were aware of what was taking place. Decades later, when the human source of such an incredible medical breakthrough was revealed -- her husband, children, and siblings entered a time of sincere confusion over what exactly it means to have Henrietta's cells not only "alive" but dispersed on such a global scale.
In the interim, a multi-million dollar industry of HeLa cell distribution developed. It is an understatement to say that many people and corporations have financially benefited from the HeLa phenomenon. Yet the Lacks family have never realized any remuneration whatsoever, and today cannot even afford basic health care.
This book is an attempt to at least rectify the issue of recognition.
Rebecca Skloot spent a decade in research and writing to give us this story of a remarkable woman, her family, and the repercussions of an astounded world trying to keep pace with her crazy cells!
This is a five-asterisk must read. More novelly than most novels!


1 comment:

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Loved listening to the audio version of this one.