The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: a book review by Chris Roland


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     The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks is an interesting story about the life and death of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks, whose cells lived on when all other cells did not. It is worthwhile reading concerning medical practices and treatments of the past and of today. It is also a story of the rough road traveled by her many family members and their mistrust of doctors and hospitals. I learned many things about research in medicine and what it was like to be poor and black in a culture very different from today’s. 
    Henrietta Lacks’ family received no money or compensation for the use of her cells, called HeLa cells, an abbreviation of Henrietta Lacks’ name. The cells were used worldwide in research for the development of the polio vaccine and continue to be used for ongoing studies still today. Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 of cancer, yet her cells remain alive and in use today.
    In reading this book, there were other aspects I found of interest. For example, contamination by  HeLa cells was occurring without notice—so much so that the book compares the situation to the science fiction movie The Blob.
    Then there is John Moore’s story, a battle with his doctor who patented his cells, the MO line. And Ted Slavin, whose doctor, unlike Moore’s, told him that his body was producing something valuable. Slavin contacted labs and drug companies to see if they would buy his antibodies. Their answer was yes, yes and yes.
    I like a book that makes me think about issues and present perspectives from different points of view. This book does that.  It makes me wonder how we know if our blood and cells are valuable.  If they are, do we own them? Do you or your family have a right to know if your cells are used in research?  Some of the answers to these questions can be found in the afterword of this book. The court rulings may surprise you, and some will be debated for a long time. ~Chris Roland