Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (copy)

Henrietta didn’t feel right. She wasn’t exactly sure what was wrong but she had a little knot in her lower abdomen. She had no problem with the pregnancy and birth of her fifth child six months earlier, but this knot was new. As her body returned to its normal size the small lump remained.

At her next check up, Henrietta told the doctor she felt a little lump. During the pelvic examine the doctor found a most unusual nodule. It was rounded like a marble with a shiny purple color. The doctor noted on her chart, “like grape Jello.” Henrietta was right. There was something growing in her stomach.

The year was 1951 and Henrietta’s biopsy was malignant. She rode the bus to John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore the following week for radium surgery. She did not tell her family she had cancer. Instead she acted like she was off for a weekend with friends.

Before the doctor administered the radium he did a favor for a colleague. George Gey (pronounced Guy) was trying to grow human cells. His office, located in the basement at Hopkins, looked like an industrial kitchen except for the Bunsen burners and large freezers lining the walls full of “blood, placentas, tumor samples, and dead mice.”

Gey discovered Henrietta’s cells, from her first biopsy, lived through the night and split and multiplied over the weekend. This was not unusual. He had cells that reacted the same way but died by the end of the work week. On a hunch, Gey asked Henrietta’s doctors for more cells just in case this multiplying effect which was still occurring after five days turned into his “immortal” human cell.

Gey was handed a small cup labeled, Henrietta Lacks, full of cancer cells still warm from her body. Those cells became known as HeLa cells and are still growing in mass quantity today. The book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, states that if the microscopic cells grown from Henrietta’s original cells were placed side by side they would wrap around the earth three times.

Rebecca Skloot, teacher of creative writing at the University of Memphis, has written a highly readable nonfiction book. Readers will not get bogged down in techy terminology and boring shop talk, this book is pure nonfiction fascination. Unfortunately, Henrietta died within a year but her cells continue to advance science in areas such as gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and cloning.

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