Time for a terrific read designation. It's been...ages since I made such a pronouncement.
I have just finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, and I highly recommend it.
This non-fiction work details two story lines: the fate of Henrietta Lacks, who died of virulent cervical cancer, and the early efforts to culture and maintain live human cells. The intersection of the two stories is what occupies the heart of the book.
Skloot first heard of Henrietta Lacks when a biology teacher wrote the word “HeLa” on the board, the name of a most important line of human cells. The teacher went on to say that the cells had come from an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks, but that no one knew anything else about her. From that moment, Skloot was hooked.
When she began the search to learn more, she spent more than twelve years to learn the true identity of the source of the HeLa cells. Her search gave rise to the book. No wonder, it reads as though it is a fiction mystery story—the unfolding story pulls reader along, so be prepared for reading it late into the night.
In addition to teaching you a whole lot about cell culture techniques and challenges, the book also explores medical ethics. When Henrietta Lacks’ cells were sampled and grown, informed consent was not a common practice at all. Henrietta died in 1951, and it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that informed consent and patient information about testing that what we take for granted today became common practice.
However, two historical frameworks complicate that observation. First, immediately following World War II, when it became clear that the Nazis had been conducting horrific experiments in the name of medicine, the doctors involved were tried at the Nuremberg trials and convicted. To rectify an perceived legal lack of a guiding code. Dr. Leo Alexander—who was the principle medical advisor—developed a ten point code to govern using humans as test subjects: the Nuremberg Code. The first of those principles was the unequivocal need for voluntary consent by human subjects. Of course, the doctors at Johns Hopkins—where Henrietta Lacks was treated and where her cells were sampled and cultured—would not have viewed using cells outside the human body as experimenting ON the human body.
Second, the history of public health in the United States has been woeful where African-Americans are concerned. Perhaps one of the worst examples of the failure of health care for African-Americans is the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. This study began in 1932 when the Tuskegee Institute linked up with the U.S. Public Health Service. They enrolled almost 400 African-American men who had already contracted syphilis. They offered them free medical care, meals and burials—all in exchange for drawing their blood. The men were NOT told they had syphilis nor were they treated for it, even after penicillin was developed in 1947 and became the widely accepted standard treatment. Instead, the men were told they had “bad blood.” A leak of information brought the study--which was examining the ravages of the disease on untreated humans--to an abrupt halt in 1972. In the meantime, unsuspecting wives were exposed to and contracted syphilis, and children were born with congenital syphilis.
No wonder, African-Americans in general are deeply suspicious about the medical establishment. And it helps explain why Henrietta Lacks’ family in particular were deeply suspicious of Johns Hopkins and its use of Henrietta’s cells.
What Henrietta’s cells did was grow in the culture medium, and they thrived. In fact, they are still “alive” today, doubling every 24 hours. The estimate is that today there are more cells derivative of Henrietta Lacks than she had in her body when she was alive.
All in all, a terrific read.