Who Wants to Live Forever? A Review.

I just love that song by Queen  . There are fond memories bouncing around in my head of Highlander marathons with clips of that song playing in the background as one immortal fight another.

But the immortality I have in mind is of a different sort.

I’ve become a fan of the library’s downloadable e-books and try to use that as a source of reading material when I get the hankering. I veered from my usual fiction selections and chose The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

I like science, but my typical sources stem from doctor’s subscriptions to National Geographic, Science, and Popular Mechanics. I’ll admit, the cover drew me in. Funny how that’s still a factor though I don’t actually have the book in my hands. What can I say? I’m a sucker for marketing.

Henrietta’s claim to fame is that her cells are still being used to this day for scientific experiments involving gene mapping and genetic testing, vaccines, and stuff I cannot wrap my brain around. Her cells are known as HeLa cells, since scientists like to use more clinical terminology instead of identifying strictly with the cell donor.

Speaking of that, the controversial part of HeLa cells  is that Henrietta never knew they were being used for scientific purposes outside her own well-being. Rebecca Skloot combines in her book a thoughtful examination of Henrietta’s life and death, her family, the explosion of HeLa cells, and the problem with personal ownership over one’s genetic information once it is removed for medical testing.

For a non-fiction piece, it’s a wonderful read–easy to follow, in terms most people can understand. Skloot’s point of view is not only objective in presenting the facts relating to the scientific community, but she also uses a stream-of-consciousness tone of voice that draws the reader into the lives of Henrietta’s children and their struggle to understand their mother’s contribution to science and medicine.

What I love most about this piece is its willingness to be honest about a complex issue that I’m sure most of us haven’t even considered. But Skloot begs us to consider what happens to the product of our bodies when we:

  • give blood?
  • are hospitalized (with and without our knowledge)?
  • get tested for disease or anomalies?
  • have surgery?

As a regular blood donor, how do I know my blood doesn’t have some wierd quality that makes it special? Unless that information is published or I am contacted, I won’t.

In the case of the Lacks family, they didn’t find out until people began exploring the donor’s side of the story. Most astonishing to them was the profit made by the continual production of HeLa cells, funds that never benefitted Henrietta’s children.

What also impresses me about Skloot is that her point of view doesn’t readily make a judgment call on the scientific community’s evolution in the last century. She systematically connects the history of cell discovery and the efforts behind cell culture so that a cell could be studied more in depth. However, Skloot also pays attention to patient treatment, particularly of black people, within this movement. Questions similar to above caused the legal system to consider the ownership rights to our genetic information, and, thus, shaped the scientific study/medical world today where we have waivers and HIPAA to protect all those involved.

And to think that most of this originated with a 30-year-old black woman from Maryland in the 1950’s.

the book from my local library page


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