Friday, December 24, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is one of the most talked about non-fiction books of the year. It is a good mixture of narrative about Henrietta and her family and textbook knowledge about cells, research and scientists.

In the early 1950s, when African Americans had few rights and were segregated in hospital wards and many other public places, a young woman named Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed and dying from what doctors eventually diagnosed as cervical cancer. While doctors were operating on her tumor they took a sample of the cancer cells without her consent. Her husband did consent to an autopsy after being told that the information gained could assist his family in medical issues in the future. Doctors had spent years trying to grow cells in test tubes and had before then been unsuccessful. With Henrietta's cells, named HeLa cells, they found cells that multiplied constantly. These cells changed the ways doctors researched everything- cancer, polio, leukemia, etc. The only practice in question is that Henrietta's family was never informed of the discovery or the fact that money was being made from HeLa cells.

The book follows Henrietta's family as they learn about the cells and struggle to learn about the mother that most of her children were too young to remember when she died. The family deals with a lot of anger about being mislead and kept in the dark. One troubling fact is that their mother's cells helped so many advances in medicine be possible while most of Henrietta's family lived without medical insurance.

In the afterword Skloot suggests that the two main issues at hand are consent and money. Should doctors have to get patient consent before taking and using cells and tissue for research? and if money is made from the cells, tissue or research should the original "owner" of the tissue get compensated? Throughout the book I thought of how I feel about these two issues. I think that yes, patient consent should be sought before doctors take and use them. However, I would hate that new discoveries, etc could be stalled because some patients don't consent to their tissue and cells being used. I'm pretty sure if asked I would give consent but I would like the chance to say yes or no. It would be very hard to track exactly how much profict was gained from one person's tissue to compensate them. Maybe if compensation is considered patients are just compensated one time for their contribution.

It's an interesting topic and a very interesting book. I enjoyed the book, especially the story of Henrietta and her family. I thought the book got a little bogged down in the technical information even though it was necessary to understand the book. What are your thoughts? Have you read the book? Want to read it? How do you feel about the issues at hand?

Happy Reading!

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