Thursday, March 18, 2010
Format: hard cover, 384 pages
Subject: medical ethics, cell research
Setting: Baltimore, MD, Clover VA
Genre: non-fiction science reporting
Source: public library
Challenge: Support Your Public Library
I didn't think I'd get this read so soon. I put it on reserve at the library and was told I was 48 in line for 37 copies. Then three days later, it came in. I thought I was just going to leaf through the pages but found myself engaged right away. It's set mostly in my hometown of Baltimore, and is so well written and such a compelling story, that I had to read it straight through. It's the story of a poor black woman, Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cancer tumor was so unusual that doctors at Johns Hopkins took samples before they began treating her with radiation back in 1951. She died within the year, but her cells from the tumor turned out to be some absolutely fantastic ones that are almost impossible to kill and are incredibly easy to reproduce and use in medical research. Her cells are known to scientists as HeLa (the first two letters of her first and last name).
Her family never knew about the procedure or about these incredible cells growing and being used all over the world. HeLa cells are reportedly responsible for Dr. Salk's success in developing the polio vaccine for instance. Today, her descendants are so poor they can't even afford to go to the doctor. It's an incredible story of a reporter wanting to find out about the cells, the family, and the research. It's well written, fairly easy to understand, and a must read.
The reporter has established an educational trust for the benefit of Henrietta's descendants.