24 May 2010

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

In 1951 there was no such thing as a patients' bill of rights or informed consent when undergoing medical procedures or being enrolled in a research program. When Heniretta Lacks sought treatment at Johns Hopkins charity hospital, entering through the doors for "colored" people, she had no idea that that the cancer cells that were taking over her body would still be living sixty years later. In fact, HeLa cells (named after their original host) have been used by almost everyone who has conducted any kind of biological or genetic research in the last half century.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot recounts her journey to discover just who Henrietta Lacks was. Skloot interviewed Henrietta's doctors, befriended her family, and conducted basic investigative research. The story takes tangents into medical research and the laws protecting patients. She raises questions about who owns the leftover tissues doctors collect from biopsies, blood tests, and surgery. The answers aren't easy once you take into consideration monetary concerns, privacy issues, and ethical dilemmas.

Skloot skillfully relates technical aspects of HeLa cells and medical research, making that part of the book as interesting as learning about Henrietta Lacks and her children. Although readers don't have trouble becoming absorbed by the story, they are left wondering about Skloot's methods and the ultimate consequences the book will have on Henrietta Lacks's family.

Note: I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for my Skype book club, which discussed the book in early May. Some of the thoughts expressed here were strongly influenced by that discussion.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks at Powell's
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Published by Crown Publishing, 2010
ISBN-13: 9781400052172

Challenges: New Author, Buy and Read, 100+
YTD: 43
Source: Bought (see review policy)
Rating: B

8 comments:

JoAnn 5/24/10, 6:20 AM  

Hope to get to this one soon - I'm very curious about it!

Sandy Nawrot 5/24/10, 6:44 AM  

Big feature on this book in the latest Bookmarks mag, which caused me to add it to my list. Very compelling story!

CafebyJW 5/24/10, 7:13 AM  

It seems interesting, but I might consider to have it as I need long time to finish one English book. Need longer time for not being native English.


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Amy 5/24/10, 11:32 AM  

I'm also very curious about this book and can't wait to get a copy. Looks really interesting.

Cathy 5/24/10, 1:13 PM  

Every time I see this book, I want to grab a copy. Sounds fascinating.

Jenners 5/24/10, 9:13 PM  

I've seen a lot about this book and I'm very curious about it and the issues it raises.

Alice Teh 5/29/10, 3:27 AM  

I hope to read this one day. Thanks for the review, Beth.

rolodexter 6/16/10, 2:07 PM  

The story's most incredible because of the chance find that the researcher came across in the protagonist's cells. Her cells, it turns out, were taken from her without her consent or knowledge, and her kin only found out when the researchers needed more of them, and so consulted them about submitting to cell samplings. No one else in her family had these immortal cells that Lacks had, which went on to accomplish some of the most important research and findings in medical history (polio vaccine, important AIDS work, etc.).

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