Sunday, July 29, 2012


Awhile ago I had heard about the book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot.  I finally got to read it and it is a fascinating story as it reviews the science of using human cells in research and a woman's life story.  The other stories told in the book are about her children and her family and their life struggles.

This story is non-fiction and is about an African American woman, Henrietta Lacks, who had an aggressive form of cervical cancer in the early 1950's.  She died in Baltimore from complications created by this cancer.  Unbeknown to her and her family, samples of the cancer tumour were taken by her doctor to see if he could grow these cells in a laboratory environment.   In previous attempts by this doctor and others, human cells did not survive in petrie dishes and nourished by a medium, divide and keep on multiplying.  Henrietta's cells were different.

Cells from Henrietta Lacks were the first cells to survive in a petrie dish and actually flourish.  These cells were named HeLa based on her initials.  These cells were the first live cells that were successfully shipped in the mail to other researchers in the United States.  These cells were used to test the newly developed polio vaccine, the Salk vaccine.  The HeLa cells were used to test all sorts of viruses, how cells react when exposed to radiation, the effects of steroids, chemotherapy, drugs, hormones and vitamins.  Henrietta's cells were sent up in the second satellite to go up into orbit and were used to study the effects of radiation levels and when the first humans went into orbit, Henrietta's cells went with them so that researchers could study the effects of space travel.  Researchers did find in space mission after space mission in zero gravity, that the HeLa cells became more powerful and were dividing faster with each trip while noncancerous cells grew normally in orbit.  As cited in this book, when this book went to the printers in 2009, more than 60,000 scientific articles had been published about research done on the HeLa cell lines.

There are many ethical and legal questions raised in the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Rebecca Skloot does discuss the issue of using Henrietta's cells without her knowledge or consent.  Furthermore, she elaborates on the issue of tissues being kept and stored in laboratories when you get biopsied, have moles removed, appendices or tonsils removed, and so on.  The tissues that get removed don't always get thrown out.  In a report published by the RAND Corporation in 1999, it estimated that more than 307 million tissue samples from over 178 million people were stored in the U.S. alone.  These samples come from routine medical procedures, tests, operations, clinical trials and research donations.  Research Institutes are also gathering tissue samples for mapping cancer genes.  What the issue boils down to is consent to use your tissue for research, finding out potentially damaging information about your genes and medical history and finally a pharmaceutical company making money selling drugs based on research done using your tissue samples.  Most research institutions do get consent from patients for any tissues that might be used in research but there is not always uniformity.  There are also issues about whether donors have the right to determine what kind of research they do not want their tissue samples to be used on -- nuclear weapons, abortion, racial differences, intelligence and so on.  The author reviews a number of litigation cases currently before the courts dealing with the control of tissue samples.  Issues include privacy, how your DNA is being used, gene patents and control over how the tissue samples are being used.  The opportunity for potential financial gain that might transpire from using people's tissues is also discussed at the end of this book.

The author has extensively researched this book and spent a number of years assembling information including recreating the life of Henrietta Lacks.  I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it.  In reading the life story about Henrietta Lack, I wondered if life's circumstances for her family would have turned out differently if Henrietta or her family would have been told about her cervical tissue samples being taken  at the onset and if she was white in colour instead of being black.

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