Monday, May 3, 2010

Cell life after life: the clinical immortality of Henrietta Lacks

From an unmarked grave, sixty years on, discover a time-lost tobacco farmer, a part of whom now lives on forever: in the map of the human genome, five Nobel prizes, and research that has saved lives for decades.

The life of the most important tissue donor in medical history, begun in a humble shack, was once buried by mystery. Her living cells led to the historical polio vaccine; they are used to this day by researchers exploring cloning, cancer, leukemia---even the secrets of the atomic bomb. Yet twenty five years would pass before "He La"'s contribution would come to light. The intense replication nature of her cells led to cell generation's first true success story.

A descendant of freed slaves wrestled with an aggressive cervical cancer that provided, for her body, a cellular life after life that has changed the face of medical research. Our country's controversial history of experimentation and African American subjects is cross cut and illuminated by the story of this middle-school educated woman's participation and donation of cells now famous the world over.

Author Rebecca Skloot's biographical research into the decades-long saga of the cells of Henrietta Lacks is the focus of THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS. I think the way she captures the human drama with no other agenda than observation paints a picture of the times and the faces behind a web of discoveries. Bioethics is the story of how we arrive at scientific contributions in the context of the humanity of the research from which they are derived. The story of bioethics cannot be told without the life Skloot here examines.

This is not only a story about science, though it is one of the most crucial in medical research history. This is a story about a period of history before racial integration, a very personal story about a woman's life from the margins of a society that relegated the perceived value of a person by class and skin color; yet without Henrietta, an unrecognized and desperate test subject, we are left with our ignorance about a great many avenues of suffering, and possibilities that yet teem on the human horizon. Because her cells live on, and because of a latent, objective universality of biological Man, changes still unrevealed continue from the remains of a woman separated from her contribution by the values of a world still stubbornly passing from memory and actuality.

Rebecca Skloot, a Popular Science magazine contributor, is presently touring the country. If you can make it to Warwick's in San Diego this May 3rd, she will be signing her book at 7:30 pm.

You can learn more about the book---and read an excerpt on her website---here:

“A thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty, ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ also floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of ‘Erin Brockovich,’ ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ and ‘The Andromeda Strain.’ More than 10 years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write. It signals the arrival of a raw but quite real talent.”

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