Thursday, February 10, 2011

Do you know where all your cells are?

Whether you know it or not it's very likely that samples of your tissues or blood are on file somewhere. They may be sitting in lab freezers at military facilities, in biotech corporations, or public and private hospitals. They may be used for research into something you find objectionable, or a researcher may have already taken out a patent on your genes, selling licenses to other labs for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And you will likely never find out and you have no legal recourse. (And no, it's not the plot for a George Orwell novel.)

Henrietta Lacks was 31 years old when she died of cervical cancer in 1951 and left behind a husband and five children. But that wasn't all she left behind. A sample of cancerous cells were taken from her cervix for research purposes (not an uncommon occurrence) and she wasn't told (also not an uncommon occurrence - neither in 1951 nor today). The amazing thing about those cells, however, is that they continued to multiply and divide and are still alive and multiplying and dividing all over the world today. They're known as HeLa (for Henrietta Lacks) and are among the very very few cells that have ever continued to grow and reproduce endlessly, making them extremely valuable for research. In fact, HeLa is directly responsible for some of the most amazing advances in science and medicine - the development of the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cancer research, cloning, gene mapping, etc. They've been to space and inside nuclear bombs, they've contaminated cell cultures worldwide, and they are bought and sold every day. Neither Henrietta nor her family knew anything about it, and they can't even afford health insurance.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksI read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot over a year ago but I keep seeing it pop up on lists - Amazon's Best Books of 2010, Powell's 2011 Puddly Award for Nonfiction, the NY Times bestseller list - and although it's what I generally think of as "popular history," I agree with the lists. It's an interesting and important book and, in my opinion, has the potential to cause a revolution in the medical research and pharmaceutical industry. Rebecca Skloot has written not a dry scientific text but a human story about Henrietta and her family and the stress and strain HeLa has caused them. It's important to note - and the book makes this very clear - that the use of her tissues wasn't done with any malicious intent. But in addition to the advances, and as Henrietta's story has become more widely known, have come a host of ethical and legal questions which are just beginning to be discussed. The book isn't always pleasant - the Lacks family has had a rough time - and sometimes the book is more of a travelogue of Ms. Skloot's journey to learn the story behind HeLa. But it will certainly give you something to think about. It definitely left me feeling a bit uneasy. (Note: I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

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