The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a difficult book to read.  It reveals a shocking abuse by medical researchers. It's sad tale about an overlooked woman whose cells have contributed greatly to scientific advancements. It's an almost four star.


Here are significant quotes from this tragic story:


"Years later, when Henrietta’s cousin Peter looked back on that day, he just shook his bald head and laughed: 'Hennie never was what you’d call a beatin-around-the-bush woman,' he said. 'We shoulda knew she was tryin to tell us somethin with that storm.'"


April 1952 "HeLa cells, it turned out, weren’t picky—they didn’t need a glass surface in order to grow. They could grow floating in a culture medium that was constantly stirred by a magnetic device, an important technique Gey developed, now called growing in suspension. This meant that HeLa cells weren’t limited by space in the same way other cells were; they could simply divide until they ran out of culture medium. The bigger the vat of medium, the more the cells grew."


"With HeLa, a group of scientists in Colorado succeeded, and soon the world of science had not onlyHeLa but also its hundreds, then thousands, of clones." "In the setting in which the patient is involved in an experimental effort, the judgment of the investigator is not sufficient as a basis for reaching a conclusion concerning the ethical and moral set of questions in that relationship.”"What they found was disturbing: in mission after mission, noncancerous cells grew normally in orbit, but HeLa became more powerful, dividing faster with each trip."


"Researchers were using that growing library of cells to make historic discoveries: that cigarettes caused lung cancer; how X-rays and certain chemicals transformed normal cells into malignant ones; why normal cells stopped growing and cancer cells didn’t."


"...using words like illegal, immoral, and deplorable. Hyman also got an affidavit from a fourth doctor explaining that the patients in the study wouldn’t have been capable of giving informed consent even if Southam had asked: one had advanced Parkinson’s disease and couldn’t talk, others spoke only Yiddish, one had multiple sclerosis and “depressive psychosis.” Regardless, Hyman wrote, “I was informed that consent was not necessary … that it was unlikely that Jewish patients would agree to live cancer cell injections.”That caught the media’s attention. The hospital called the suit “misleading and fallacious.”But newspapers and magazines ran headlines saying:    PATIENTS INJECTED WITH CELLS NOT TOLD THEY WERE CANCER … SCIENTIFIC EXPERTS CONDEMN ETHICS OF CANCER INJECTION."


“Every human being has an inalienable right to determine what shall be done with his own body. These patients then had a right to know … the contents of the syringe: and if this knowledge was to cause fear and anxiety or make them frightened, they had a right to be fearful and frightened and thus say NO to the experiment.”


The technical name for this was somatic cell fusion, but some researchers called it “cell sex.”


The Times of London called the HeLa-mouse cells the “strangest hybrid form of life everseen in the lab—or out of it.”


"The British press called the HeLa hybrids an “assault on life,” and portrayed Harris as a mad scientist. And Harris didn’t help the situation: he caused near-pandemonium when he appeared in a BBC documentary saying that the eggs of man and ape could now be joined to create a “mape.”"...when it  came to HeLa, they had no idea what they were up against. It turned out that Henrietta's cells could float through the air on dust particles. They could travel from one culture to the next on unwashed hands or used pipettes; they could ride from labt to lab on re-searchers’ coats and shoes, or through ventilation systems. And they were strong: if just one HeLa cell landed in a culture dish, it took over, consuming all the media and filling all the space."


"Gartler’s findings did not go over well. In the fifteen years since George Gey had first grown HeLaa, the number of published articles involving cell culture had more than tripled each year. Scientists had spent millions of dollars conducting research on those cells to study the behavior of each tissue type,comparing one to another, testing the unique responses of different cell types to specific drugs, chemicals, or environments. . .If all those cells were in fact HeLa, it would mean that millions of dollars had been wasted, and researchers who’d found that various cells behaved differently in culture could have some explaining to do."


"Everybody say she was real nice and cooked good,” he said. “Pretty too. Her cells have been blowed up in nuclear bombs. From her cells came all these different creations—medical miracles like polio vaccines, some cure for cancer and other things, even AIDS. She liked takin care of people, so it make sense what she did with them cells. I mean, people always say she was really just hospitality, you know, fixing everything up nice, make a good place, get up, cook breakfast for everybody, even if it’s twenty of them.”


"A few months after Gey’s death, Howard Jones and several Hopkins colleagues—including Victor McKusick, a leading geneticist—decided to write an article about the history of the HeLa cell line as a tribute to Gey’s career. Before writing the article, Jones pulled Henrietta’s medical records to remind himself of the details of her case. When he saw the photographs of her biopsy, he immediately realized her tumor had been misdiagnosed. To be sure, he dug out the original biopsy sample, which had been stored on a shelf since 1951."


"Nelson-Rees National Cancer Institute...He would become known as a vigilante who published HeLa Hit Lists in Science, listing any contaminated lines he found, along with the names of the researchers who'd given him the cells. He didn’t warn researchers when he found that their cells had been contaminated with HeLa; he just published their names, the equivalent of having a scarlet H pasted on your lab door."


"McKusick's research on the Lacks family coincided with the beginning of a new era of genetic research, in which the concept of risk to patients would change completely. With the ability to identify genes from a blood sample or even a single cell, the risk of a blood draw was no longer just a minor infection or the pain of a needle stick--it was that someone could un-cover your genetic information. It was about violation of privacy."


"She called Henrietta an“unsung local heroine,” explaining the importance of the HeLa cells, and quoting a historian saying the HeLa story was “one of the most dramatic and important in the history of researchat the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution.”


"a Marvel comic book character who appears in several online games: a seven-foot-tall, half-black, half-white goddess who's part dead and part alive, with immeasurable intelligence, superhuman strength, godlike stamina and durability, and five hundred pounds of solid muscle. Shes responsible for plagues, sickness, and catastrophes; shes immune to fire, radiation, toxins, corrosives, disease, and aging. She can also levitate and control peoples minds. When Deborah found pages describing Hela the Marvel character, she thought they were describing her mother,"


"grabbed an other vial of HeLa cells, and held it out to Deborah, his eyes soft. She stood stunned for a moment, staring into his outstretched hand, then grabbed the vial and began rubbing it fast between her palms, like she was warming herself in winter." 


'She's cold', Deborah said, cupping her hands and blowing onto the vial. Christoph motioned for us to follow him to the incubator where he warmed the cells, but Deborah didn't move. As Zakariyya and Christoph walked away, she raised the vial and touched it to her lips. You're famous, she whispered. Just nobody knows it. 


"Various policy analysts, scientists, philosophers, and ethicists have suggested ways to compensate tissue donors: creating a Social Security like system in which each donation entitles a person to increasing levels of compensation; giving donors tax write-offs; developing a royalty system like the one used for compensating musicians when their songs are played on the radio; requiring that a percentage of profits from tissue research go to scientific or medical charities, or that all of it be funneled back into research."


'The debate over the commercialization of human biological materials always comes back to one fundamental point: like it or not, we live in a market-driven society, and science is part of that market."


"Which brings us back to the complicated issue of consent. Just as there is no law requiring informed consent for storing tissues for research, there is no clear requirement for telling donors when their tissues might result in profits."


"Today the decision to disclose this information is up to the institution, and many choose not to tell patients". 


"Michael Gold wrote about the contamination story in great detail in his book, A Conspiracy of Cells, which was a wonderful resource."


There are a significant number of quotes used in this review. I believe they speak for themselves. It's a challenging book to read. The interaction of the author & Henrietta Lack's family is poignant. Especially after Deborah, her daughter passed away. It's a sad chapter of history that there was this type of abuse of an individual's rights. 


Henrietta Lack's cells have contributed significant sources of advancement in the medical field. For this she should be honored.


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