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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
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PNC INSIGHTS Magazine Spring/Summer 2014 Issue
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Unexplored issues of race, science and medical ethics come to light in this illuminating biography.

In January 1951, a young black woman entered the free clinic of Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore complaining of abdominal pain. During the examination, the doctor took a sample of a cervical lesion to test for cancer. He also sent a tiny portion of that sample to another lab at Johns Hopkins, which was working on growing human tissue in vitro. These samples became the first human cells to be cultured successfully.

That's more than most have ever known about Henrietta Lacks, the 31-year-old great-great-granddaughter of slaves whose cells--known simply as HeLa--have been central to some of the most important medical advances of the last 60 years: polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization, to name a few. Her cells were used to study herpes, leukemia, Parkinson's disease and AIDS. They were sent into space before any human being to examine the effects of zero gravity. They were even used to discover human papillomavirus, leading to the creation of a vaccine that now prevents the cervical cancer that killed Henrietta Lacks. In all, the cells were involved in some 60,000 studies--a figure that continues to grow to this day.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, writer Rebecca Skloot relates the tale of Henrietta's life, family and remarkable cells as the culmination of the 10 years she spent piecing together the story. The book is as gripping as any suspense novel.

Skloot shows how Henrietta's story lies at the very center of modern-day issues surrounding race, gender, poverty, education and the rights of individuals versus society as a whole. It takes on the medical and scientific establishment, as well as the thorny issues of informed consent--which Lacks never gave. In fact, her descendants didn't find out about her world-famous cells until the 1970s. One of the most poignant observations in the narrative comes from Henrietta's son, Lawrence: "If your mother's so important to science, why can't we get health insurance?"

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating look at modern U.S. history through the prism of a single, seemingly anonymous individual and the literally thousands of lives she touched, even in death.

 


 

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