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.


California Girl said...

Hi Maggie: I haven't visited in a while and I apologize. I have your icon & blog on one of my two blogs and this caught my eye so here I am.

I first heard about this story on NPR, before the book published. I was so intrigued but it wasn't yet out. Now I'm hearing about it consistently and I am going to break down to get it. What a story.

Last week, I heard a taped interview with the daughter of Henrietta Lacks. I don't remember when it was taped but it was on NPR and they said the daughter is now deceased.

I understand part of the book is about whether or not Johns Hopkins had the right to take the cells w/o asking the family. I think I saw something on "60 Minutes" about this too. The family was interviewed. Just regular folks still living in the South.

What a story!

maggie moran said...

Here is Hopkins thinking, California Girl...

They considered themselves a hospital that allowed anyone treatment in the 50s. Henrietta was black and they took everything they got from African Americans as payment for services rendered whether they paid themselves or not. Ethically, I am torn. We would not have this incredible scientific knowledge if they had not used her cells, but also the Lacks should have free health services in perpetuity!!!

I cannot express how much I enjoyed reading this book! Science and relationships!!! I do remember thinking one of the chapters was a little too general. Everybody thought this or that and we all know opinions are like noses (substitute your own body part) we all have one. ;D

I hope you enjoy reading it!!!

California Girl said...

my husband thinks as you do and said this was "common practice" in those days. I find it morally reprehensible as I find experimentation on animals abhorrent. I think society too often justifies the means etc.

I appreciate your response and I do look forward to the read.

maggie moran said...

Oh, My California Girl!

You will like to know that before the HeLa cells, researchers trying to find a vacine for polo killed a monkey everytime they tested one!!! TG for Henrietta!!!

Isabel said...

I read a review in the New York Times about this book.

I am glad to know that it raises ethics in science issues.

I hope to find it soon.

maggie moran said...

I think you will like it, Isabel!

ricklibrarian said...

It's on my list to read. Thanks.

maggie moran said...

Great Rick! Let me know what you think? :D